August 13, 2008

Youth, Love and "Twelfth Night"

Summer always makes me think of Shakespeare. That’s probably because I was a kid when Joe Papp started staging free performances of the Bard’s plays in New York City parks on hot weather nights back in the 1950s and ‘60s. Seeing those shows was a big deal in my working class neighborhood. “You going to see the Shakespeare tonight?” people would ask when they bumped into one another at the corner grocery store or coming out of the subway from work.

It was a rhetorical question. Just about everyone went whenever the shows played in our nearby park. Our family would eat an early supper, then walk the few blocks to the playground to get good seats in the temporary bleachers that had been set up there. I don’t remember which plays we saw back then and I can’t tell you if they were well done or not but I do know how much I looked forward to them, how wonderful they seemed to me and what a good time we all had. It's how I first fell in love with theater.

Over the years, I’ve experienced some of that same tingle of wonder whenever I went to see Shakespeare productions in Central Park but eventually the lines to get a free ticket got too long and the prices that you had to pay to skip to the head of the queue got too high (this year, you had to “donate” $150 a seat per show) and so it’s been a while since I’ve seen one there. Which may explain why I so appreciated my evening at the Pulse Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Twelfth Night.

Pulse performs at various outdoor venues around the city. I caught its Twelfth Night at The Amphitheatre at the Riverbank State Park, where it’s playing through Aug. 24. The entrance to the park is at 145th Street and Riverside Drive and the amphitheater overlooks the Hudson River. On a balmy night, it’s an idyllic setting for Shakespeare’s romantic romp about cross dressing lovers, mistaken identities and the follies of arrogance.

This production updates the action to the present (the characters carry iPods) and moves the location from Shakespeare’s Illyria to “a City much resembling New York City.” It also adds a lot of interstitial pop music that ranges from Elvis to Led Zeppelin, dating it in a different kind of way. The sound system seemed anachronistic too, flickering in and out or bursting into static that made the dialog unintelligible at times. But the cast was game.

In the true spirit of Papp (who, if he wasn’t the first, was certainly the most enthusiastic non-traditional caster) the actors were diverse in every way—by race, age, and, truth be told, by talent too. Raushanah Simmons, a Michelle Obama-look-alike who has appeared in Public Theater productions, as Viola; and Annie Paul, a recent college grad from Ohio debuting in her first New York show, as Olivia came off best but everyone seemed to be having a good time.

The folks in the audience too. There were only about a 100 or so of us but we were also a multicultural lot. I saw a few middle-aged white couples, an Hispanic mom and dad with their four daughters, a quartet of white twentysomethings who brought along a picnic basket of goodies (a smart idea; a glass or two of wine would have made the evening perfect for me) and a black teenager with what seemed to be his three younger brothers. One of the boys was so excited by what he was seeing on stage that he couldn’t stay in his seat (a concrete bench; so bring a cushion) and literally whooped with delight at the silly antics of the play’s clownish Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, proof that Shakespeare can hold his own with the "Kung Fu Panda" generation.

The brothers left before the show ended. I thought it was because the eldest was tired of trying to rein in his siblings. But it might have been because he knew that the No. 11 bus, which you can ride right into the park, stops running before the lovers are properly sorted out and the supercilious Malvolio gets his comeuppance. You can walk the few blocks to Broadway and get the subway but not even being semi-stranded marred the evening for me. This Twelfth Night was far from a midsummer’s night dream. But it did transport me back to those summers evenings of my girlhood and the start of my ongoing romance with the theater.

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