The experience of director Saheem Ali’s fantastic and high energy production of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night with the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit has a lot to do with the peripatetic nature of the company. This initiative of the Public Theater was born from founder Joseph Papp’s belief that culture is for everyone, not just those who can afford it. The company travels to prisons, libraries, and community centers in all five boroughs to present theater for free to people who may not have access to it. No longer on tour, Twelfth Night is still free but is now enjoying a residency at the Public’s LuEsther Theater through May 14.
The story begins with a shipwreck involving twin brother and sister, updated to become immigrants from a Spanish speaking country, who each believe the other to be drowned. Viola (the excellent Danaya Esperanza) lands on the shores of Illyria and finds work as assistant to Duke Orsino (Michael Bradley Cohen), disguising herself as a boy named Cesario. Her brother, Sebastian (Stephen S. Chacon), and his compatriot, Antonio (Michael Thurber), find themselves on the other side of Illyria and set out to discover this new land.
The wealthy Orsino is set on wooing and wedding the grieving and impenetrable Olivia (a sassy Ceci Fernandez), and hires Cesario as a go-between. This backfires as Olivia, in true mistaken identity fashion, develops a liking to the cross-dresser.
Olivia’s own household is plagued by the presence of her uncle, the idle, drunken Sir Toby Belch (a perfectly sauced Christopher Ryan Grant). Often accompanied by the maid, Maria (the delightful Aneesh Sheth), Sir Toby does nothing but lounge around the pool all day scheming ways to profit from Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Cohen, doing his best hip hop white boy), who is also trying to win Olivia’s heart, and messing with Malvolio (David Ryan Smith), Olivia’s valet.
Smith’s portrayal of Malvolio is pure comedy genius. Think part bitchy queen, part uptight stick-in-the-mud, part messenger bag toting Gary from Veep. Some of his costumes are unexpectedly hilarious (costume design by Dede Ayite) -- I’ll only say that when he steps onto the stage in a certain pair of pajamas, you will laugh your ass off.
Of course, no Shakespeare play would be complete without a fool. While there are no shortage of foolish characters in Twelfth Night, that particular honor belongs to Donnetta Lavinia Grays, who plays Feste. Feste rolls around accompanied by a sort of rickshaw DJ booth manned by a musician (Thurber), spouting song, rhyme and, in true Bard fashion, pearls of wisdom.
The impeccable cast members of Twelfth Night rove throughout the space, sometimes onto and through audience members. A large square carpet indicates the stage and to build their set (scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado), the actors wheel the minimal set pieces in and out (one of the more inspired pieces is a blow up pool float on a dolly). The audience surrounds the “stage” facing each other and house lights are never turned off, so there is a sense of community and shared experience.
And what an experience it is. Boisterous, bawdy, uproarious and colorful, the Mobile Unit’s Twelfth Night is Shakespeare at its most youthful. It’s clearly a product of the Millennial generation but without being too obnoxious about it; as a hallmark of that generation, the love triangle resolves itself in a uniquely sex-positive way. This production provides pure escapism for 90 minutes of sexy, 17th-century century fun.