Saturday, July 14, 2012

Late Saturday Afternoon in Williamsburg: Black Henna Productions presents "Twelfth Night" at McCarren Park

Late this afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds as we sat through an absolutely delightful performance of our favorite Shakespeare comedy, Twelfth Night, with the intrigue set at an American-style summer camp, presented by the talented crew at Black Henna Productions, who did a similarly lighthearted and playful production of Much Ado About Nothing here at McCarren Park two summers ago.
This was, if anything, even more enjoyable -- and that's saying a lot, because we've seen two other wonderful park productions of Twelfth Night in the past few weeks. Well, we think you can never see Twelfth Night enough, so we're grateful Black Henna Productions brought this production to our neighborhood.
Of all the many plays, mostly Shakespeare, we've seen in parks in four boroughs, McCarren Park is probably the most challenging place -- perhaps along with Carroll Park -- to stage a theatrical production. (Apart from Black Henna's Much Ado and Twelfth Night, we saw two plays here, New Lions Productions' 2010 Comedie of Errors and The Glass Bandits Theater Company's 2011 The Little Mermaid
McCarren has no bandshell or amphitheater like Riverbank State Park or Marcus Garvey Park or a pagoda or Oriental pavilion like Prospect Park, no natural outcropping like the rocks at Central Park's Mineral Springs or the hills and wide expanse of Fort Greene Park. Sound travels easily, and today there was almost incessant loud music coming from the other side of the field house, with occasional but tolerable noise from the boys' soccer game behind the audience, near the Lorimer Street edge of the park. So Black Henna gets mucho props just for staging this event here.
We knew, though, it would be best to sit in front, because even the best actor's voice can be challenging to hear. Luckily, we've still got most of our hearing and we hardly had any problems. Anyway, this was an imaginative reimagining, a summer camp -- in the program, each character is given his or her role ("Camp Morale Officer Malvolio," "Head Cook Toby Belch," and the wry "Accountant/Ombudsman Feste") and the scenes are located ("Sir Toby's Mess Hall," "The Volleyball Court of Orsino," "Antonio's Waterfront Dock," "Olivia's Administrative Cabin"). This is funny stuff, and here Johnny Young has directed with a light and light-hearted touch in every way.
For example, Antonio, usually played with dark intensity, is here played shrewdly by Chris Wentworth as a camp kid's version of a pirate, complete with removable eyepatch (hilariously worn on different eyes in different scenes), bandana with the skull and crossbones, an "Aargh!" and the drawing syllables of "saaarvant" for "servant." That Wentworth's Antonio appears to be paired off at the end with the various delicious characters played by Cas Marino -- a treat to watch as he morphs from an effeminate Captain to a doddering Priest to the drawling backwoods Officer who arrests Antonio, sometimes without doing more than exchanging one prop for another.
We'd never seen Malvolio played by a woman before, and Susan E. Young (who with Mark Dunn, who has a sweet singing voice and some glib patter as Feste, composed some original music played here, presumably over a boombox or something hidden in the bushes) is a lady Malvolio much distracted even before she is gulled into the lighter people's plot. The lion puppet that she affects in the early scenes with Olivia, Maria and Feste is priceless, and she appears to be very, very nervous throughout, even before her dark torment, which here seems like adolescent mean-girl bullying.
Ian McDonald is fine, setting the tone for Camp Illyria as a slightly dim good-guy Orsino. As Toby, Jim Anderson has a fine, if not obnoxious bluster (though we'd definitely eye the meals we were served at this camp that he's cooking up), and has wonderful partners in criminal mischief in Malini Singh McDonald as Camp Secretary Maria,
Jubilee Figueroa as the often-stoned Junior Counselor Fabian, and Trey K. Blackburn as a fussy, germ-phobic Andrew Aguecheek. These characters, like many of the cast, emphasize the childish -- or perhaps childlike, on a good day -- qualities of the Illyrians created on the page by Shakespeare.
As Viola, Ayo Oneké Cummings has an easygoing, plucky spirit, one matched by her dreamier but bolder twin Sebastian, as played by Bryndon Cook. Their resemblance is close enough to work wonderfully, especially in their scenes with Tai Verley, a standout as the camp owner Olivia, who generates a lot of the energy in this production. And seeing Olivia and Viola both played by black women -- Black Henna deserves credit for the diversity onstage here -- creates the same kind of interesting perspective as when Malvolio's love for Olivia is frankly a lesbian girl-crush here.
The summer camp setting totally worked for us, as it preserved the fun -- although a very dark or a somber, melancholy Twelfth Night can be wonderful, it's not what you want to see in a park on a summer afternoon or early evening -- while providing some ironic commentary on some of the characters' self-importance (it's not clear whether Mike DeRosa's Assistant Athletic Counselor Curio is so attentive to his earbuds because he's getting important information for Orsino or listening to Franz Ferdinand or a Mets game]. We also liked the costumes by Deborah Erenberg, which seemed as if they came straight out of bug juice and smores heaven in the Poconos or near Bear Mountain.
We're grateful we got to spend some time this summer at Camp Illyria (without having to check into a bunk bed). Thanks to Black Henna Productions -- Malini Singh McDonald is executive director, Ian M. McDonald artistic director -- and everyone associated with this Twelfth Night, which we hope you can catch at the Forest Park Bandshell on July 15 at 4 p.m., back here in Williamsburg at East River State Park on July 16 at 6:30 p.m., Cherry Hill in Central Park on July 20 at 6 p.m. and on July 21 at 2 p.m. and up in The Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park on July 22 at 3 p.m.

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