William Shakespeare’s hilarious tale of gender-bending, mistaken identities and foolish festivities has seen countless iterations, from classic Broadway revivals to modernized interpretations such as the 2006 teen rom-com “She’s the Man.” The San Francisco Playhouse’s production of “Twelfth Night,” however, is set in a strange land that exists “here, there, and everywhere” with a timelessness that makes it feel perpetually relevant. Written in 2018 by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub, this 2021 musical adaptation combines elements of New Orleans jazz, ’80s pop and traditional show tunes for a whirlwind journey through the mythical city of Illyria.
“Twelfth Night” follows Viola (Sophia Introna) and Sebastian (Bear Manescalchi), identical twins who are separated after a shipwreck. Dressed as a man, Viola seeks employment from Duke Orsino (Sean Fenton) who hopes to woo the lovely Olivia (Loreigna Sinclair). But Viola falls in love with Orsino, Olivia goes head over heels for the disguised Viola, and hilarity ensues. A live band sits at the back of the stage, bringing the production to life with not only song but also sound effects and direct interactions with the actors.
When the lights dim and the music swells, the audience enters the technicolor dream world of Illyria. The set design is beautiful, featuring vine-covered balconies and spiral staircases reminiscent of the whimsical Greek isle of “Mamma Mia.” The costumes are nothing short of wacky, with clashing colors and ’70s prints that would make the cast of “Godspell” proud. Indeed, this ragtag group of hippies seems to be having the time of their lives making music and frolicking on stage.
Feste the fool (Sam Paley) is especially strong as a musical clown, who draws the lovers close by tickling the ivories during “Is This Not Love?” and poking fun at Sir Toby Belch (Michael Gene Sullivan) while playing the accordion in “You’re the Worst.” In stark contrast, Olivia grieves in her black mourning clothes, making a melodramatic entrance with a funeral procession for her recently deceased brother. Yet, by the end, even she cannot resist the musical fun, and her black gown and veil are replaced by a hot pink cocktail dress.
While the crazy love triangle is the main focus of the play, the comic subplot steals the show. Olivia’s pompous servant Malvolio (Atticus Shaindlin) is at once ridiculously overconfident and extraordinarily awkward in his cross-gartered yellow stockings. His earnest desire to become “Count Malvolio,” combined with the sleek movements of a cat and the frozen gaze of a deer in headlights, makes for some delightfully funny scenes. But he’s not all fun and games — when tied up with caution tape and trapped in what appears to be a blue port-a-potty, his sincerity and blind trust in others pulls at the audience’s heartstrings.
At the same time, the show touches on deeper themes such as gender identity and masculinity. In “I Am She,” Viola expresses frustration and dejection with her manly disguise, wishing she could express herself as who she truly is. There’s a sense that perhaps Duke Orsino sees something in her that goes beyond friendship, even before she sheds her suit and tie, making for not-so-subtle homoerotic undertones. And in “What Kind of Man R U Gonna Be?”, Viola and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Caleb Haven Draper) grapple with expectations of manliness in a comic duel between an effeminate squire and a cross-dressing woman.
All in all, “Twelfth Night” is a ridiculous romp through multiple time periods, musical genres and fashion choices under the stellar direction of Susi Damilano. Even those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s complex plots will easily follow the story. “If music be the food of love,” the cast of “Twelfth Night” at the San Francisco Playhouse will play on, from now until Jan. 15.