The Hudson River lapped at the dock-side amphitheater in Riverbank State Park, waiting for twilight and Twelfth Night. Pulse Ensemble Theatre’s Harlem Summer Shakespeare Project, now in its fourth year, presents this production with highs and lows, but to an audience who fully embraces the show.
With the sound and smell of the water, a simple backdrop from John McDermott suffices to set this New York adaptation. An initial chase scene, set to Led Zepplin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” creates the symbolic motif of running after the ever elusive—whether in love, body, or truth—and ushers in the flimsy theme of the elite fitness-obsessed. Sean Fredericks (Orsino) jogs in, starting the play: “If music be the food of love”—then overdoses himself and the audience with Zepplin’s great hit looped over and over. He only skims the surface of falling for Olivia, at least insofar as the great tradition of playing this Illyrian duke. With great commitment, Fredericks demonstrates Orsino’s shows of love, which inevitably prevent him from seeing the love in front of him.
Raushanah Simmons’s Viola is a true lady, though her blue blood runs cold at first. A washed-up survivor of a torrential storm, her aristocratic stiff upper lip comes across as prissy instead of noble. But in Cesario’s dashing blue pinstripe suit, Simmons relaxes, allowing Viola’s most endearing gentleman qualities to serve Orsino as a page, friend, and secret admirer. R.J. Foster’s Sebastian matches Viola with gentility and courtly grace, even though he is never given enough stage time in the play to be more than Viola’s brother and Antonio’s friend.
In any case, this has always been enough for Olivia. In this production, director Alexa Kelly characterizes her by her willingness to trade up for whatever suits her fancy just then. The stereotype of the Upper East Side nouveau riche is highlighted by Olivia’s performing the motions of fitness without ever committing fully to one regimen, flitting between weights, isolations, and yoga like a quick change artist. It seems to fit the character’s denial of her brother’s death that she searches for something to fill the void, but the constant movement proves obnoxious as her opening scene progresses. Out of her aerobic attire, Annie Paul’s Olivia seems very young and boisterous: not disagreeable but not quite congruent with the text.
The audience’s favorite character is clearly Malvolio, as the group delights in the subplot, rich with intentional schadenfreude. Brian Richardson shines in his delightfully hideous bumblebee-striped jacket, sunshine yellow shorts and knee socks, another hint of Kristine Koury’s snappy and on-point costume sensibility. When attired as a butler, Richardson is dressed in stuffy concert tails and carrying a riding crop, a literal and symbolic attempt to gain control. The crop provides ample material for physical comedy, but unlike the cross-garters written into the script, the crop is superfluous and becomes foolish instead of hilarious. Richardson’s performance is strengthened when he loses it, his physical comedic timing delighting the audience as the show progresses. But his gestures are too flamboyant for a true Puritan, forcing the audience to accept his love for Olivia through words only. He also elicits no sympathy from the viewer as his fate turns downward, giving the audience plenty to laugh about, but not a lot to ponder. Although Richardson’s uncomplicated but entertaining Malvolio wins many people to the production, the most wonderful moment in the play comes from Orsino.
It has always troubled me that Orsino’s love is turned instantly from Olivia to the newly-revealed Viola. He has always loved Cesario (in some productions with more homoeroticism than others), but he claims that his true love is for the Countess. It fits together nicely that he will marry Viola, but are his feelings for Olivia negated with his future nuptial? Whether actor’s or director’s choice, this production brings new light to this subject. After the Duke proclaims that he and Viola will stay with Olivia until they find the captain and sort the matter out before the weddings, he gives her a loving hug. He then looks at her. Within this singular look, I could see all the love that he earnestly proclaimed for her, all the hurt he shouldered with her refusals to see him, all the heartache he feels in letting her go with Sebastian. His love is not sticky sweet with sentimentality; it is so overwhelming and all-encompassing that her happiness comes before his own. It is in this moment that I felt compelled into the play and its romantic ending, painful open wounds healing just beneath the surface.