Much Ado About Nothing that we enjoyed so much in the same location, this Twelfth Night was set in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, a conceit that worked very well, thanks to the talented actors in the ensemble cast.
We've read the play countless times. In the fall of 2005, we taught Twelfth Night in our senior AP English class at Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix, and from April 2007 to April 2011, we taught it five years in a row to multiple sections of Literature and Writing II at the School of Visual Arts (plus again at a June 2010 summer session). And we always re-read it.
In order to give the classes, especially visual arts students, the notion that drama isn't really complete until it's seen in performance (although reading plays has been a passion since we were, well, again, a tiny little boy), we used to compare how different actors handled scenes and roles in various productions from films and TV: There's the Trevor Nunn-directed 1996 film with Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley, Imogen Stubbs, Nigel Hawthorne and Richard E. Grant, set during a Victorian-era war; Nicholas Hynter's 1998 version with Helen Hunt, Kyra Sedgwick and Brian Murray; a traditional TV version with Alec McCowen, Sinead Cusack and Felicity Kendal; a 1969 TV classic starring Sir Alec Guinness, Tommy Steele, Sir Ralph Richardson and Joan Plowright,
Also -- we have bought some of the VHS tapes and DVDs -- a 1988 TV adaptation of Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company production; an animated version (we taught animation classes at SVA) using motion capture and gorgeous puppets done by a joint British-Russian production team; a dark multicultural 2003 TV version set in contemporary London starring Parminder Nagra, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Maloney; and the Brighton Beach branch library gave us Yakow Fried's 1955 Russian film featuring the great Georgy Vitsin as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
And then there's always the teen high school comedy She's the Man, loosely based on Twelfth Night, with Channing Tatum as "Duke" and Amanda Bynes as Viola. Plus a few years ago we videotaped on WNET/13 a documentary about and featuring the 2008 live performance in the round by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. So we've read and seen Twelfth Night a lot, and we love this play.
Hey, unlike our theater-going companinions, the noted drama critic Peter Filichia (who knows more about the stage than practically anyone) and the literary agent Linda Konner (who was also in Mr. Berger's class back when we read the play in 1965), we stayed on in Central Park after intermission at what some consider a disastrous star-studded 1990 New York Shakespeare Festival production set in early 1900s Monte Carlo with Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Gregory Hines and other Hollywood film stars.
Tonight's New York Classical Theatre production did not disappoint at all, and we doubt anyone left during the moveable feast that was this performance; actually, the audience grew and grew as some passing by joined the parade to watch the amazingly talented cast recreate the magical dukedom of Illyria. We were hoping to quote from some reviews from newspapers or magazines because we feel uncomfortable writing about such a professional production.
We're not qualified to be a theater critic, and when we first started writing about the free plays (and concerts and art shows, etc.) that we see, it shocked us to see that sometimes people called them "reviews." They're more "reports," we think, just one person's (not always well-informed position). It's dismaying that we couldn't find a review of this New York Classical Theatre production because if this were any other city -- Phoenix/Mesa, where we also live, or our other home of Miami/Fort Lauderdale -- this Twelfth Night would be a Major Cultural Event, reviewed by the city's paper of record and big weekly paper and probably the subject of more than one feature story, and the cast and director would probably be on all the local stations' news reports and on radio.
But New York Classical Theatre's production, as professional as it gets -- albeit with the twist of being mobile, which is definitely not a gimmick -- works in New York City, in the shadow of Broadway, Off Broadway, and establishment theater and arts organizations (although NYCT does get a lot of corporate, foundation, and government support). We still hope for a review of this great production in The New York Times, but I guess the days of Joe Papp sitting in Arthur Gelb's office until he agreed to review a Shakespeare play in a Lower East Side park are long gone.
It also seemed interesting that director Stephen Burdman seemed to de-emphasize the role of Feste the Fool (or Clown), giving many of his scenes and lines to Fabian, played with a delicious Irish brogue of Nick Salamone, who seemed the most "New York" of the characters. Andy Patterson, an actor we've enjoyed watching before, made Feste a jester who's quite prim, sly and delicate, and he gave line readings and songs shades of meaning we'd (again) never quite noticed before.
Chantal Jean-Pierre was a spirited Olivia from the get-go. She can barely pretend to be in mourning, so hard it is to suppress her love of fun and of life. Her scenes with Ginny Myers Lee disguised as Cesario have a playful warmth. The white-bearded John Michalski takes on the role of Sir Toby Belch as readers of the play probably envision the character, and when he's onstage with the rubber-faced Ian Antal as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, behind the very funny bits of business, physical comedy and wordplay, there's an autumnal sadness. (Lines like that prove we're not a real critic.)
Of course, it's great fun to keep moving around. Kids at Shakespeare park productions can get restless, and New York Classical Theatre has them moving around a lot. (They're doing some specific family-friendly workshops for kids 7-12 at 5 p.m. on July 7, 8, 21 and 22 at Battery Park.) It's also great fun when the actors break character for a second at the end of a scene to give directions, as when Viola is told to run off to Olivia's and she says to the audience, "You go that way."
And the gorgeous settings -- sunset over the harbor, the skyscrapers of downtown (including the new World Trade Center buildings), the ferries shoving off -- when a saucy Maria (Laura J. Cole) tells Cesario/Viola, "Will you hoist sail, sir? here lies your way," and she points to the water with a boat setting off for Staten Island, it's delicious.
Having played for a couple of weeks around West 103rd Street in Central Park, New York Classical Theatre's Twelfth Night will be in Battery Park till July 24. Antonio (a heroic Danny Randerson here) says, "I do not without danger walk these streets," but if you wear comfortable shoes, you'll be safe, and like us, grateful we saw this production.
UPDATE, Friday, July 6: Happily, The New York Times has reviewed this production. An obviously out-of shape Anita Gates found the 16 moves "exhausting , , , but by the show’s courtyard ending the cast had pretty much won me over."