The intricacies of Shakespeare’s play recede to the background in The Public Works’ musical adaptation of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater, but due to the inventiveness of creators Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, it doesn’t matter. Taub has also written the show’s original score and lyrics and she has plucked the source material’s multiple narrative threads down to a streamlined few, choosing to focus squarely on Viola for most of the intermission-less evening. As a result, Nikki M. James is given the best part she’s had in years and she does not squander the opportunity.
The adaptation finds its own open-hearted language to tell the tale of shipwrecked Viola’s search for her twin brother, Sebastian (Troy Anthony), and the love triangle that ensues. The score is robust with lyrical dexterity and musically distinctive in its brass-and-accordion orchestration. In trimming the five-act play to a brisk ninety minutes, the music serves many purposes. It covers most of the exposition, establishes character, and delivers plot in neat packages. The rotating ensemble of community members is given a gossipy refrain in which they discuss “the word on the street”: in this case, everything the audience needs to know in the sections of Shakespeare’s play that have been cut. It’s a little juvenile, but it does the trick.
The score is most effective when it comments on the politics of the original play, as in “Viola’s Soliloquy.” Taub has Viola examine why she feels more acknowledged in men’s clothing:
“I feel so seen as a guy/ People move aside when I walk by/ I felt so veiled as a girl/ Invisible to the world…/ Why has this power in me never been given a chance?/ Is it as simple as putting on a pair of pants?”
Viola begins to realize that Sebastian, though her identical mirror, lives in a world of privilege she cannot unlock as a woman. The disguise is empowering. The play’s gender dynamics are brought to the foreground and add a welcome layer to Viola’s struggle.
In the Shakespeare, Toby Belch, Viola, Olivia, and even Feste all have a comparable amount of the text, but Taub and her co-conceiver Kwame Kwei-Armah have re-centered the play onto Viola alone. The character is, therefore, drawn in bolder shades than those around her. In this production, Viola is the only character who seems like an actual person. The others are secondary to her. It’s reductive to a character like Olivia, whose motivations now seem slapdash, but it doesn’t have much effect on the comic characters like Belch.
Nikki M. James portrays Viola with a luminous intensity. Her wavering between wanting to find her brother and wanting to see how things play out with Olivia and Orsino pulls at her. The power of her newfound pants surges through James’ performance. She is in fine voice, a natural fit to Taub’s melodic lines, and her presence is captivating and creates a thrilling heroine to root for. Since receiving her Tony Award for The Book of Mormon, James has not had a chance to share the full range of her gifts in a role as demanding as Viola and it is high time we get to see her in action again.
As the couples were reunited at the end of the performance I attended, a torrential shower descended on the stage. Three sets of lovers took hands and looked up into the sudden, thick fall of rain and were drenched in unmistakable happiness. We all were too, and we didn’t want to move. Shakespeare in the Park is an enjoyable experience even when the production is bad: you’re outside, you’re eating a hot dog, it’s like a sporting event for people who prefer plays. It doesn’t matter if it’s dreadful if you’re not enclosed in four walls. It’s especially pleasurable, though, when the production is as joyful, ebullient, and celebratory as this one.
The Public Works’ Twelfth Night runs to August 19, 2018. More production info can be found here.