This month’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night has as much youthful spunk as Rent. I hate spunk. Also, I hate Rent.
At the start of the show, which runs through Sunday, we’re told we’re in for a “radically inclusive” evening. This turns out to mean that the stage heaves with dozens of amateurs chosen from community groups who shuffle around in the background as members of the chorus and occasionally pop up to do a line or two. All shapes and sizes are included, which means lots of tubby and homely actors, who also intermittently deliver lines in sign language. Just to underline the freewheeling nature of the production, the costuming looks like an explosion at the Salvation Army. By my troth, this is an ungainly show.
One thing that gets radically excluded from this 90-minute drive-by is Shakespeare: Perhaps 85 percent of the text is simply thrown out, replaced by musical numbers with contemporary lyrics broken up with a hectic splatter of plot points from the tale of those shipwrecked twins, Viola (Nikki M. James) and Sebastian (Troy Anthony), who on Illyria get tangled up in mischief with Duke Orsino (Ato Blankson-Wood), his romantic quarry Olivia (Nanya-Akuki Goodrich), her uncle Sir Toby Belch (Shuler Hensley), and the prudish and self-pitying butt of all jokes Malvolio (Andrew Kober), a disappointed suitor of Olivia. Disguised as a man named Cesario, Viola woos Olivia on behalf of the duke, but Olivia falls in love with “Cesario” instead.
Snippets of dialogue from the play appear here and there, but the story is mainly told in song. Both music and lyrics are by Shania Taub, who also plays the supporting role of Feste and anchors a smallish orchestra onstage. (I found it impossible not to think of the apocryphal Hollywood story about a credit for one film version of The Taming of the Shrew: “Screenplay by William Shakespeare, additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”) Sample lyric — this is Malvolio — “In middle school they locked me in a locker / Always picked me last in gym-class soccer.” The tone is that of a clever, frolicsome undergraduate variety show, breezy and brash but still amateurish. Mostly Taub’s numbers are tuneful enough, though, particularly the R&B-style ballads that are beautifully sung by James and Goodrich. As a vocally challenged individual — when I bust out a chorus of Dad Rock, my children start applying to foster families — I couldn’t help feeling marginalized. Why does this production privilege the vocally gifted?
The tone is that of a clever, frolicsome undergraduate variety show, breezy and brash but still amateurish.
The directors (Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah) might have asked themselves why they prefer beautiful voices to ugly ones and followed that reasoning a bit farther. It’s not okay to belabor my eardrums, so why is it okay to scald my retinas? Could they not also have cast the play entirely with professional actors, dressed them in beautiful clothes and surrounded them with beautiful sets? Heck, they might have gone for broke and even drenched the audience with beautiful words. Many were available to them. They’re by Shakespeare.
Instead, in one of those fetid August weeks when arôme des ordures looms over the city like the alien spaceship in Independence Day, this Shakespeare in the Park offering felt less like the usual magical escape to a sylvan setting of euphonious oration than an extension of the noisome chaos we New Yorkers grapple with each day. In the last half-hour of the play, a trapdoor opens and the imprisoned Malvolio rises up through the center of the stage. He’s encased in a Porta-Potty. Later the thing gets knocked on its side and we’re meant to understand that Malvolio gets well soaked by its contents. As a critic, I don’t often have occasion to type this word, but: ew. Unsightly portable water closets are all over this city’s innumerable construction sites, and I don’t particularly need to be reminded of the city’s fug of scuzz when I go out to see some Shakespeare. This Twelfth Night is aggressively democratic, to its detriment. Art is elitist, a ruthless elevation of the talented. It isn’t supposed to recreate the experience of a walk through a random neighborhood in Brooklyn.