Perhaps Shakespeare's most playful — and musical — comedy, Twelfth Night is ripe for modern adaptation, though it has not been as often put to film as some other Shakespeare. And with its themes of attraction, hedonism, deception, and gender fluidity, what's not to like?
SF Playhouse chose to restage a recent adaptation of Twelfth Night, last seen in Central Park during the 2018 Shakespeare in the Park season, as their first holiday season musical production since the pandemic began — and yes, this is a musical version of Shakespeare's original that's been heavily condensed and liberally played with. Coming in at just around 90 minutes with no intermission, this Twelfth Night, as adapted by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub is a quick and ribald take on this ensemble farce, with modern songs that help propel the tale.
The opening number, "Play On," of course plays off Shakespeare's famous opener to this tale, "If music be the food of love, play on." And in this production, directed by Susi Damilano with choreography by Nicole Helfer, we are thrust into a Caribbean version of Illyria full of mirth and pastel tones, where an accordion-toting fool doubles as the town gossip and busker, and its moral center.
This is Feste, perhaps the wiliest of Shakespeare's dozens of clown and fool characters, played here by recent NYU grad Sam Paley — songwriter Shaina Taub took on the role herself in the New York production, and it's a demanding one that requires the rattling off of riddles in addition to playing multiple instruments on stage and singing one solo number. Paley does an admirable job calmly keeping all the plates in the air, but it does feel like a role that will take some settling into.
Without giving away too much if this isn't a familiar play to you, let's just say it's another of Shakespeare's gender-disguise tropes, this one centering on fraternal twins Viola and Sebastian who get separated in a shipwreck. Viola decides to masquerade as a man, Cesario, doing as her brother would do to get a quick gig as a wealthy duke's servant — but wouldn't you know it she falls in love with him, and meanwhile the duke's in love with a countess in town, Olivia, and Olivia falls for Viola in man drag. And hilarity ensues!
All told, this is a very talented cast with several excellent singers — including Sophia Introna as Viola/Cesario, Loreigna Sinclair as Olivia, and Sean Fenton as Orsino, the duke. Atticus Shaindlin arguably steals the show in the role of Malvolio, one of Olivia's servants who has a secret crush on her — Shakespeare cast this role as a villain meant for mockery, a stand-in for the fun-spoiling Puritans of his day who despised all theater, but it's nonetheless a role with heart that is often the stuff of comedy gold. Shaindlin is also given a funny group number in the middle of the show in which he grandly imagines his future as "Count Malvolio."
Damilano's direction does well by this adaptation, allowing the ensemble to goofily insert themselves and upstage the main characters at times, like revelers at a non-stop Mardi Gras. Supporting players are vital in the original Twelfth Night and here as well, with Olivia's besotted cousin Sir Toby Belch (Michael Gene Sullivan), the bawdy maid Maria (Cathleen Riddley), and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Caleb Haven Draper), all stealing scenes in turn. And they're backed by a terrific band who handily navigate through the varied score, between New Orleans jazz (used hilariously every time Olivia saucily enters), R&B, folk, and more.
Certainly fans of Twelfth Night will find plenty to love and laugh at in this musical version. And those new to Shakespeare should make a beeline for what is sure to be one of the most digestible and enjoyable takes on a Shakespeare work in many years.
'Twelfth Night' will run at the SF Playhouse (450 Post Street) until Saturday, January 15, 2022; in-person tickets ($30–$100) can be found here; streaming tickets ($15–$100) are avalible to purchase here.