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Evaluation: San Francisco Playhouse’s ‘Twelfth Night time’ is native theater at its finest

Viola (Sophia Introna), disguised as Cesario, is looking for a tour of “Twelfth Night” at the San Francisco Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse

Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes. A rope meanders further, enclosing the ensemble in the form of a ship’s hull, while a sail rises behind them. Gusts of wind. Other actors become waves and algae. Two bodies, both entirely in white, hover over the other. They grab each other’s hands in vain.

Wordlessly and enchantingly, San Francisco Playhouse’s “Twelfth Night” tells the background story of the twins Viola (Sophia Introna) and Sebastian (Bear Manescalchi), who are separated by a shipwreck. Then Shaina Taub’s music kicks in, a happy, jazzy extension of the show’s famous first line: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Maria (Cathleen Riddley) says goodnight to Toby (Michael Gene Sullivan) after conspiring with Andrew (Caleb Haven Draper) on “Twelfth Night”. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse

This production, which opened on Wednesday December 1st, is no ordinary take on William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy of gender swapping, false identities, and interlocking love triangles (growing into squares). Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Taub, Shakespeare adapts it so convincingly into a musical that one might think that the two genres have always been intertwined. Is the difference between a searching self-talk and an 11 o’clock number really that big?

San Francisco Playhouse is a midsize company, but it’s still a shabby one – the kind of place the founder’s dog walks around the lobby and house on opening night. With “Twelfth Night” director Susi Damilano shows it at its best and shows how much artists can achieve when they don’t have a Broadway budget, but more than make up for it with ingenuity, craftsmanship, empathy and compassion.

Feste (Sam Paley, center) opens San Francisco Playhouses “Twelfth Night” with the people of Illyria (Tiana Paulding, Michael Gene Sullivan, Amanda Le Nguyen, Cathleen Riddley, Caleb Haven Draper, Tasi Alabastro, Jon-David Randle and Amanda Farbstein) . Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse

The entire setup of the show – the castaway Viola disguised as Cesario to work for Illyrias Duke Orsino (Sean Fenton) – is sent in a jiffy within a single, inexpensive change of numbers and costumes. Shakespeare newbies are welcome here; the professional Michael Gene Sullivan as Sir Toby Belch can tell a whole story of how he falls down a flight of stairs, how he uses individual words as rocket launchers for completely new nuances of meaning.

Damilano has put together a line-up of outstanding vocal voices that merge under the musical direction of Dave Dobrusky as if they had been together in a choir for years. Sam Paley is particularly strong as a party that approaches the ballad “If You Were My Beloved” as if it could take the burden off the shoulders of the thwarted lovers Viola and Orsino. Ensemble member Jamie Zee also shines with a mature, thoughtful alto who could easily keep the whole show going if necessary. Nicole Helfer’s sassy choreography helps define the piece’s universe; Is it any wonder the world is turned upside down in this spinning, spinning version of Illyria?

Malvolio (Atticus Shaindlin, center) enchants Olivia (Loreigna Sinclair) in his crossed yellow stockings in “Twelfth Night”. In the background are Cathleen Riddley (left), Sam Paley, Amanda Le Nguyen, Michael Gene Sullivan and Tasi Alabastro. Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse

And there is more that stands out, especially among the clowns in the play. Caleb Haven Draper as Sir Andrew Aguecheek prances as if he’s in his own private production of Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He can expand a pout from his face to his posture to his aura, like a deflated balloon becoming human.

And can someone please write a solo exhibition for Atticus Shaindlin’s Malvolio, the pompous servant of Countess Olivia (Loreigna Sinclair)? He doesn’t just move like a choo-choo train or smile like a wild cat before the bite or maybe as if he was about to be x-rayed at the dentist. He’s just standing there weird, like maybe a ballerina posing for cameras that only he can see. His frozen stare, whether he dreams of others crouching in front of him or plans revenge against those who do not realize his size, contains masses.

Maria (Cathleen Riddley, front right) affectionately scolds Sir Toby (Michael Gene Sullivan) for being a drunken villain, while Fabian (Tasi Alabastro, left), Feste (Sam Paley) and a cast member (Jamie Zee) in “Twelfth Night “watch.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse

But with all this glorious fool, something serious is at work. As the whole twin thing is cleared up and Viola reveals who she really is, Damilano’s production makes it clear that even when you dress up and deceive everyone, something about your wondrous individual soul cannot help but shine through. Even if you are attracted to someone on false pretenses, there is something beautiful about the act of attraction itself. No front that we open and no pants that we put on can dampen the human urge to love and be loved.

n“Twelfth Night”: Conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub. Music and lyrics by Taub. Director: Susi Damilano. Until January 15th. Two hours. $ 30-100. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., SF 415-677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org

  • Lily Janiak
    Lily Janiak is the theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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