Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thursday Night in Battery Park: New York Classical Theatre presents "Twelfth Night" in and around Castle Clinton and all over Battery Park

Tonight we had the joy of seeing a light-hearted, excellently executed performance of Twelfth Night by the New York Classical Theatre in one of their amazing peripatetic productions of Shakespeare, starting at Castle Clinton and meandering all over the Battery Park waterfront with its spectacular views of the harbor, the ferries, the lower Manhattan skyline, various monuments, and lush greenery that seemed a perfect setting for the lovers and would-be lovers of Illyria in our favorite Shakespeare comedy.
New York Classical Theatre forbids photography -- those who clicked were gently admonished and told to stop by the NYCT-T-shirted interns who deftly direct the audience from place to place -- but we saw so many magnificent tableaux, thanks to the expressive actors, clever staging and beautiful backgrounds that again and again we could imagine great pictures. (Below we are following the crowd to the next scene.)
Directed by the company's artistic director Stephen Burdman, who also directed the 2010 production of 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.
Apart from the The Public Theater's renowned New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park -- yes, Joseph Papp, blessed be his memory was the one who started it all, decades ago -- we've always thought that of the many other New York City park performances of Shakespeare we've seen, New York Classical Theatre provides the highest production values: they've been around a long time, and you'll always see a show polished to the highest sheen from them.
Which is not to say that as you get your exercise, taking your seats and standing as you will -- the little kids always seem to get to the next scene the fastest, although tonight we saw an older lady with a cane who was doing pretty well -- you won't enjoy the spontaneity and thrills and freshness that's in this version of Twelfth Night, as in their other shows over the years.
Twelfth Night was the first play by Shakespeare we ever read, in the spring of 1965, when we were 13yo ("When that I was and a little tiny boy") and in Neil Berger's 8SPE2 English class at Meyer Levin Junior High in East Flatbush, and we liked it fight away. We were reading in preparation for seeing a professional performance for schoolkids done at Grady Technical High School in Brighton Beach, and maybe it's a foolish thing but that performance has stayed indelibly in our memory for 47 years.

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.

Anyway, we really enjoyed seeing Twelfth Night in Battery Park, not just because we love the play, but this production gave us some new aspects of the comedy that we'd never seen before in our reading or watching. Also, this was the production, more than any other, where Viola (Ginny Myers Lee, feisty and nonchalantly charming) and Sebastian (a stolid, bemused Ben Charles) actually resemebled each other in their turn-of-the-century newsboy caps and attire.

Clay Storeth's Orsino seems a good deal older than Viola here, and his formality (edging perilously close to the stuffiness associated with Malvolio) made Orsino more wistful and sad than in most versions of the play. Maybe what separates Orsino's foolish designs on an uncaring Olivia from Malvolio's is simply that he has money and power and Malvolio doesn't and thus, while Orsino retains his dignity, Maloviolio appears laughingly ridiculous.
Whether our insight has any value, we're grateful that this production made us see something like that for the first time after so many readings and viewings of Twelfth Night.

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.)

Sean Hagerty's Malvolio is actually quite a dynamic fussbudget, and we liked that the scene where he comes out in his yellow cross-gartered stockings and smiles maniacally at Olivia is underplayed rather than milked for easy laughs. There's a subtlety to these performances that we found refreshing.

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.
Cole, by the way, is so irrepressible that she handles the line in which she tells Sir Andrew, "bring your hand to the buttery-bar and let it drink," she does so with a physical gesture so astonishing and so funny that we were amazed.
That's what it's all about in some sense: Amazement. And all the actors in this production, director Stephen Burdman, the many others who worked on the gorgeous costumes (the music is limited due to the walking around;
the lighting, toward the end of the two-hour performance, is performed by the wonderful interns shining flashlights on the actors) and elsewhere behind the scenes, deserve a lot of credit. At the final stop of the play inside Castle Clinton, we teared up at the recognition scene and then joined in the celebration of the multiple weddings. It was a joy to see this.

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."

No comments: