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Mobile Unit Twelfth Night
Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? — Sir Toby
The Public Theater's Mobile Unit sits on the venerable shoulders of founder Joe Papp's original touring company that began in 1957. The downtown institution is now celebrating its 60th anniversary, and with a nod to Papp's motto that "culture belongs to everyone," the Public is offering free tickets to the Mobile Unit's new production of Twelfth Night.

For those who aren't familiar with the Mobile Unit program, it was inaugurated in 2010 as the Public's answer to how to reach that segment of New York's population who couldn't afford high ticket prices or stand in line for hours to get free tickets to the Delacorte Theater productions in Central Park. This outreach program tours homeless shelters, prisons, and community centers throughout the five boroughs. Over the past seven years, it has garnered kudos from tough critics for its staging of Shakespeare plays with no frills and lots of gusto.

So how to describe their latest production? A Latino version of the Bard's romantic comedy? An insane romp through a Floridian fantasy world? An attack on puritanical social-climbers? A moving tale of true love and a brother-and-sister reunion? Well, it's all of these things, and more.

Although this production goes way over-the-top at times with its comic energy, the acting troupe really connects with the audience in the intimate space of the LuEsther Theater; also, the fast-paced action ensures that nobody will snooze watching the antics unfold and the zaniness ratchet up.

Go to the show early! Before the play proper begins, we see the actors strolling through the performing space and having chats with audience members in the front rows. No question the ensemble is intent on making the audience feel at home an part of the theatrical action.

This actor-and-audience interaction seamlessly segues into the Bard's play which is performed on a square of blue fabric. This simple prop does double-duty as the troupe deftly lifts the sheet from the stage and simulate the motion of monstrous waves. This, of course, is to represent the storm and shipwreck at sea that separated the twins Viola and Sebastian, and left each in doubt about the other's survival.

Direct Saheem Ali transports the scene from mythic Illyria to coastal Florida and supposedly presents the twins Viola and Sebastian, along with the sea captain Antonio, as Cuban refugees. According to a program note by the Public's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, this refugee idea has always been part of the dramatic fabric of Twelfth Night, just waiting for a director to press it into theatrical service. Ali definitely seizes the idea; unfortunately it doesn't come across clearly on stage.

What does come across is Shakespeare's vivid language, with Spanish words and phrases tossed in for good measure. The plot has been whittled-down to its bare bones. True, first-time spectators may find themselves at sea at certain points as they try to figure out just who is in love with who in this gender-bending play of mistaken identities. But then this play is notorious for its topsy-turvy plot and tomfoolery so that even seasoned Shakespeareans can get a bit dizzy watching the loopiness threaded through the scenes.

Don't forget too that Shakespeare gave Twelfth Night a twin title:  What You Will, giving a wink and a hint that what you will personally interpret matters more than what you will find in any library. In short, this play might be slippery to dissect but everybody can have a go at deciphering its mysteries.

A few principals carry the play through to its moving denouement. Danaya Esperanza, playing Viola/Cesario, is well-cast as the shipwrecked young woman who becomes Count Orsino's house servant and his proxy for wooing the Countess Olivia. Esperanza's Viola is sensitive, resourceful and rightly vulnerable as she falls in love with her master Orsino.

Another fine performance is turned in by Sebastian Chacon, as Viola's twin brother Sebastian. Chacon registers the necessary confidence and courage that his character must possess, especially in his dueling scene with Sir Andrew Aguecheek and romantic rendezvous with Olivia. When it comes to the comic personages, David Ryan Smith as Malvolio is right on the money as Olivia's stuffy—and deluded--steward who sees himself as the future Count Malvolio and lover of Olivia.

The rest of the cast either overplay their comic roles or overdo their characters' quirkiness. Though chewing the scenery can spice things up, the golden rule when acting Shakespeare is to trust in the power of his language and don't force it at all.

Happily, Twelfth Night is pretty much an unsinkable play. This production, though flawed, deserves a bravo for generating both the comic energy to tickle your funny bone and the emotional intensity to open your eyes to at least some of the truths that lie at the heart of the Bard's romantic comedy.

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Mobile Unit: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Directed by Saheem Ali
Cast: Stephen S. Chacon (Sebastian), Michael Bradley Cohen (Orsino, Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Danaya Esperanza (Viola), Ceci Fernandez (Olivia), Christopher Ryan Grant (Sir Toby Belch), Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Feste), David Ryan Smith (Malvolio), Aneesh Sheth (Maria), and Michael Thurber (Antonio)
Composer: Michael Thurber
Fight Director: Lisa Kopitsky
Movement Director: Tanya Birl
Running Time: 90 minutes
Public's LuEsther Theater 420 Lafayette Street
from 4/24/17; closing 5/14/17
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at 4/29 matinee

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