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BWW Review: Mobile Unit Brings Free TWELFTH NIGHT To The Public Theater


Sixty years ago, Joseph Papp packed a truck with a small troupe of actors, some modest props and the firm belief that the plays of William Shakespeare belonged to everyone, and traveled throughout New York City giving free performances.

Twelfth Night
Danaya Esperanza (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Eventually, his commitment to that belief would lead to the building of Central Park's Delacorte Theatre, where the late showman's world famous Shakespeare In The Park annually bring in tens of thousands of audience members to enjoy free shows.

Today, The Public Theater's Mobile Unit continues fulfilling Papp's mission by bringing high-quality Shakespeare productions to those who cannot physically get to Central Park, or cannot endure waiting in line for tickets; people in prisons, shelters and community centers throughout the New York area.

Call it Shakespeare On The Carpet, if you will. The simple portable, productions are played out on a square carpet with audience members surrounding the actors on four sides. Props are minimal, costumes are simple and a handful of actors, some playing multiple roles, perform a text that's whittled down to about ninety non-stop minutes.

At the conclusion of their three week tour, the Mobile Unit then plays a three week run at The Public, where tickets are modestly priced. This year, however, tickets for their 60th Anniversary Production of Twelfth Night are free. Visit The Public Theater's website for details.

Director Saheem Ali's funny and colorful freestyle riff on Shakespeare's romantic comedy takes places in 1990s Illyria, Florida and is flavored with Latin rhythms.

Shipwrecked twins Viola (Danaya Esperanza) and Sebastian (Sebastian Chacon) are now Cuban refugees escaping to America, separated and washed ashore with each thinking the other has drowned.

The rest of the plot sticks closely to the original, though dressed up in colorful beachwear and tropical fashions provided by designer Dede Ayite. Disguised as the male Cesario, Viola gets a messenger gig with Count Orsino (Michael Bradley Cohen), falling hard for her boss while he pursues the love of the uninterested widow Olivia (Ceci Fernandez), who sees a reason to stop grieving when she surrenders to Cesario's unintentional charms. When Sebastian enters the mix, confusion naturally abounds.

Twelfth Night
Christopher Ryan Grant, David Ryan Smith
and Aneesh Sheth (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The parallel plot involves Olivia's uncle, party boy Sir Toby Belch (Christopher Ryan Grant) who, with his buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Cohen again) and his niece's maid Maria (Aneesh Sheth), plays an elaborate joke on Olivia's pompous, humorless steward Malvolio (David Ryan Smith), who is smitten with his lady.

As the jester Feste, Donnetta Lavinia Grays sports a portable DJ booth as she emcees the proceedings with rhyme and wisdom set to a hip-hop, house music blend composed by Michael Thurber, who plays Antonio, who rescues Sebastian from the sea.

With the complicated plot compressed to an hour and a half, there's little time for subtext, but the company is obviously having a blast playing the comedy's broad strokes in a festive atmosphere of frozen drinks and poolside fun. It's a terrific intro to Shakespeare for kids and other first-timers.

As always, the great pleasure of Mobile Unit productions is to try and see them through the eyes of someone serving time in prison or seeking safety in a shelter for battered women. While on tour, many of their audience members have never attended a live professional theatre production before, and the service these artists provide to New Yorkers should be well appreciated.

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From This Author Michael Dale