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Photo credit: Isaiah Tanenbaum

Twelfth Night

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Sara Thigpen

Presented by Boomerang Theatre Company in Central Park, NYC

June 16th-July 15, 2018

Off-Broadway usually means something along the lines of a basement theater in the East Village or a black box in Chelsea; sometimes, however, it means beneath the verdant canopy of Central Park. Boomerang Theatre Company, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary, has brought an effervescent new, free, outdoor production of William Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night to a spot just inside the boundary of the park between 68th and 69th streets on Central Park West where a pair of small trees form a kind of natural proscenium and the audience is encouraged to bring blankets and snacks and to share photos of the action on social media.

Like other of Shakespeare's comedies, Twelfth Night sports a high quotient of gender and identity confusion. Viola (Hannah Jane McMurray) finds herself in Illyria following a shipwreck, where she disguises herself as the male Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino (Anthony Simone), who is enmeshed in persistently but unsuccessfully wooing Lady Olivia (Lisa Tharps). Olivia is more interested in mourning her deceased brother than in the Duke’s advances, but her openness to romance changes when she meets Cesario. Meanwhile, her uptight steward, Malvolio (Michael Shattner) dreams of social advancement, ideally through marrying Olivia, and the hedonistic Sir Toby Belch (Vinnie Penna) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Spencer Aste) plot with Maria (Sevrin Anne Mason) and Olivia's fool Feste (Annalisa Loeffler) to put Malvolio and his ambitions in their place. Also, unbeknownst to Viola, her twin brother Sebastian (Paul Herbig) and his companion Antonio (Mateo Moreno) have survived the seaborne disaster as well and are wandering around Illyria complicating things.

Some productions of Twelfth Night lean hard into opportunities for darkness and gender and sexual fluidity. Boomerang’s staging has moments in which it highlights the latter (Cesario resting his head on the Duke's shoulder while Feste sings and the Duke seems to resist temptations to touch Cesario with his hand is one; Tharps' delivery of Olivia's "most... pleasurable" after finding out there are two Cesarios is another); it generally, however, forgoes the former for a tone of good humor and reconciliation (Malvolio is more ridiculous than threatening and is reintegrated into the household; the Duke's match with Viola does not become a vehicle for its own subversion). It isn't afraid to embrace the play's bawdiness and meta jokes about comedians, theater, and poetry, but it also doesn't let those crowd out interpretive choices that create small character moments, such as Feste easily seeing through Cesario's disguise or reluctantly adopting the disguise of Sir Topaz to torment Malvolio in a dark room, or Olivia's authentic smiles later in the play contrasting Malvolio's performative ones.   

The costume design, by Stefanie Genda, pays similar attention to detail -- helping, for example, to communicate a shift in Olivia's character -- and evokes multiple periods. There is some inventive and effective use of the outdoor space, and this barest of bare stages showcases the talent of the cast. A great Feste, for instance, is integral to any successful Twelfth Night, and Loeffler delivers. Penna, Aste, Mason, and Daniel Bailin as Fabian make an excellently entertaining comic quartet in one of Shakespeare's most foregrounded subplots, counterbalanced by Shattner's prissy, self-aggrandizing Malvolio. In a cast that, when called upon to show deep affection, is universally effective, Tharps brings a palpable authenticity to Olivia's opening into warmth and affection from the outwardly controlled dignity of her grief.

Boomerang's Twelfth Night offers something for everyone: slapstick, wordplay, romance, and song, and based on the transfixed expressions of the children in the audience, some in attendance for the whole performance and others stopping and possibly derailing family plans for a walk through the park, suitable for all ages. Music may be the food of love, but it also marks the location of the imagined Illyria on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2:00pm through July 15, so grab some food, look for the singer with the ukulele, and treat yourself to some open-air theater, like a good Elizabethan would have done. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler

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