Kwei-Armah & Taub Amplify Shakespeare’s Comedy
by Patricia L. Morin & Barry David Horwitz
In a peaches and cream adaptation of “Twelfth Night,” Shaina Taub’s impressive New Orleans’ Jazz and R&B score spotlights feelings of love and self-realization. Taub’s music makes the heartbeat of the play, speeding story and emotions forward.
The music modernizes Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy about a journey to self-discovery.
When Viola/Cesario (ingenious Sophia Introna) sings, “Now that I am wearing the pants, / I’m in love with a guy/ And the girl loves me,” she discovers that as a man, she is far more visible and in charge.
Susi Damilano directs the hi-jinks brilliantly, coordinating comedy with David Dubrosky’s musical direction. Nicole Helfer adds hot sauce with multi-faceted dance numbers.
Stranded in Illyria, Viola, disguised as Cesario, cleverly appeals to arrogant Duke Orsino (imperious Sean Fenton). In this ice-cream-colored world, Introna stands out as a clever woman who protects herself from the male gaze.
Bill English and Heather Kenyon’s set design mirrors festive New Orleans, complete with wrought iron balconies and climbing vines.
Designer Abra Berman’s rainbow costumes highlight a tropical fantasy, while the 9-piece jug band transports us to Mardi Gras, where Disorder rules. Genders get switched, servants topple bosses, and a drunken knight bullies a butler.
Olivia, the Duchess next door (seductive Lorena Sinclair) vamps outrageously for the bogus boy, Cesario. Sexy Olivia has no time for the silly advances of Count Orsino.
With Cesario as target, Olivia and Orsino form a hilarious love triangle, as they sing the lovely “If You Were My Beloved.” Sea Captain Antonio (superb Jon-David Randle) joins in with his ardent reprise, expressing his profound love for Sebastian, Viola’s supposedly drowned twin brother.
As Olivia, Sinclair’s powerful voice resonates in “I Am She,” a satirical song where she confronts Cesario/Viola. They both admit: “I am She …. / Not the person I used to be.”
And Feste, the Fool (Sam Paley, a fine pianist) sings “Is This Not Love?”—affirming the power of unconditional love. And the diverse, gifted street people dance and sing joyous “Word on the Street,” exposing the entitled “elite.”
Pompous Malvolio (versatile Atticus Shaindlin), Olivia’s uptight Chief of Staff, dances comically at the notion that Olivia will marry him, so he can join the ruling class. In a fun-filled song, “You’re the Worst,” they gang up to taunt Malvolio with his lowly status.
Pink-suited Sir Toby Belch (exuberant Michael Gene Sullivan) drives Malvolio nearly mad. When the abused butler sings: “I could be Count Malvolio, / Watching as my fortunes grow / Getting my due,” we feel sympathy for him, too.
When Viola’s identical twin Sebastian (forceful Bear Manescalchi) pops up, the gender code goes berserk. Viola sings, “Maybe the man I tried to be was the girl I always was!” admitting that that gender flows fluidly.
In a finale, the actors reach out, asking, “Is This Not Love?” The music has awakened us to greater empathy and openness to all.
The enthusiastic ensemble advises: “See through the eyes of another / Hear through the ears of another. /Open your hearts to each other!” Who can resist?
“Twelfth Night” by William Shakespeare, conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah & Shaina Taub, music & lyrics by Shaina Taub, directed by Susi Damilano, at San Francisco Playhouse. Info: SFPlayhouse.org – to January 15, 2022.
Cast: Tasi Alabastro, Caleb Haven Draper, Amanda Farbstein, Sean Fenton, Sophia Introna, Bear Manescalchi, Amanda Le Ngyuen, Sam Paley, Tiana Paulding, Jon-David Randle, Cathleen Riddley, Atticus Shaindlin, Loreigna Sinclair, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Jamie Zee.
Banner photo: Sam Paley & the people of Illyria. Photos by Jessica Palopoli