Thomas Burns Scully
When people talk about Shakespeare in the park, most people think about the Delacorte Theatre, and the time-honored tradition of no-cost bardism that the Public Theatre has kept alive for years and years. But within Manhattan’s own forest of Arden, there is a lot more ado about Shakespeare than you might expect. Numerous theatre companies take advantage of good weather (and free performance space) to bring the classics to life, surrounded by nature, joggers, and waffle vendors. One such group is the Modern Shakespeare Project, a theatre company that does what it says on the tin. I stopped by Turtle Pond yesterday to take in their rendition of ‘Twelfth Night’. I was not disappointed.
I’ll spare you a plot summary, since Shakespeare’s classic story of mistaken identity and twin dilemma has likely been more adroitly synopted elsewhere. You’ve probably read it, seen it, or read about it at some point in your life, and if you haven’t, you’re on the internet, Wikipedia is a click away. MSP has done the work a great service here. Shakespeare often feels woefully over-performed in terms of quantity, and woefully under-performed in terms of quality. ‘Twelfth Night’ has especially been a victim of this, but dash it all if MSP hasn’t carved out their own exception to the rule.
For starters, they have cut the script brilliantly. Normally running in the region of two to two-and-a-half hours, their ‘Twelfth Night’ clocks in at a curt ninety minutes. Tracy Einstein and any dramaturge she may have happened to work with have kept the play intact, but chopped and tightened every bit of fat they can. The result is a show that has blisteringly good pace, and yet still feels like it’s ‘Twelfth Night’. Her staging of the show is largely simple and uncomplicated, (it has to be, given the movable nature of the show), but with a few clever pieces of stagecraft to keep it interesting. Most notably in a scene between Feste and Sebastian. Both of these characters are played by the same actor, Hugo Fowler, and the scene between them is played as him talking to himself. With the addendum that he wears a hat as Feste, but not as Sebastian. It was most entertaining, a great collaboration of actor and director.
As a whole, the cast are on point. The show is Spartan to the point of being almost prop-less, so the actors carry the whole show with them. Mario Brown does impressive double duty as Malvolio and Orsino, two roles so removed from each other they may as well be the Gallagher brothers. Brown, however, is convincing as both. Theresa Nicholas as Viola is as sweet and pragmatic as can reasonably be expected of a shipwrecked orphan. Hugo Fowler starts out being annoying as a highly clownish Feste, and then, like a heart worm, worms his way in to your heart. The most fun, however, is being had by Maggie Lalley and Adam Wennick as Maria and Toby Belch, respectively. The two play together brilliantly and have a Scherbatsky/Stinson-esque chemistry between them. Grace Bernardo (Olivia) and Eliza Jane Logan (Sir Andrew) are also a lot of fun to watch.
I’d had a little bit of a rough day leading up to seeing ‘Twelfth Night’ yesterday. A slow day at work, followed by Chinese food that was making me throw up. And yet, sitting by Turtle Pond, in the shadow of King Jagiello's Statue and the odd low-flying helicopter, I was brought to a place of calm by the Modern Shakespeare Project. Somewhere between Hugo Fowler’s folky renditions of Shakespeare tunes and the gently setting sun I found myself reflecting on what a New York experience this was. The kind of thing that happens in this city that they don’t tell you about when you move here. A group of dedicated people coming together to do work for free, entertaining friends, guests, and people who just happened to be walking by at the right time. I laughed, I smiled, and then at the end of it all I had to run off and throw up again. But that had nothing to do with the Modern Shakespeare project. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook, check their schedules, go and see them when you next get the chance. It’s all free and outdoors, and I can highly recommend it.