Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Twelfth Night
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of A Christmas Carol and Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley

The Cast
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
If someone you know needs an introduction to Shakespeare—especially if they have pooh-poohed the works of the Bard in the past, claiming they are too hard to follow, too complex, or too filled with poetry—San Francisco Playhouse has just the thing: a production of Twelfth Night that sings. Literally, for this is a musical version of the play, with a raft of melodic songs by Shaina Taub that help tell the story in language more accessible to modern audiences. Conceived by Taub and Kwame Kwei-Armah, this Twelfth Night rollicks with all the joy and silliness and ludicrous switched identities that have made Twelfth Night one of Shakespeare's more popular works. As directed by Susi Damilano, it's colorful, romantic, funny, and altogether glorious.

When a shipwreck (choreographed with delightful chaos by Nicole Helfer) crashes on the coast of Illyria, twins Sebastian (Bear Manescalchi) and Viola (Sophia Introna) are separated, each thinking the other has perished. Deciding she will have a hard time finding work as a woman, Viola disguises herself as a boy and becomes Cesario, winning herself a place in the employ of Duke Orsino (Sean Fenton). Viola/Cesario falls immediately in love with Orsino, but he is besotted with the lady Olivia (Loreigna Sinclair), who is in mourning for her dead brother and refusing all suitors. Orsino thinks his luck with Olivia will improve if he sends Cesario to woo her, but the plan backfires when Olivia falls for Cesario. There are others in love with Olivia, too, namely Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Caleb Haven Draper), friend to Olivia's uncle, the lovable sot Sir Toby Belch (Michael Gene Sullivan). Love will of course triumph in the end, but not before it runs a crooked course filled with mistaken identities, silly pranks, and misdirected affections.

There is much to marvel at here, including the outrageous (in all the best ways) costumes created by Abra Berman (or Tommy Bahama on an acid trip, it's hard to tell, so floral and pastel and undeniably bold are they) that fill every scene with vibrant color. The set by Bill English and Heather Kenyon serves the rather intricate plot well, with balconies and doorways aplenty for all the comings and goings. Upstage center is a bandstand where music director Dave Dobrusky and his seven-piece ensemble play with rhythm and verve.

But it's the cast (under the solid direction of Damilano) that truly make this Twelfth Night such a joy to behold. As with so many productions, it's the clowns who steal the show. It's hard to say who is more over the top (again in all the best ways) in their performance. Is it Sam Paley as Feste, Olivia's court jester? She certainly gives an energetic and joyful turn—and also plays along with the band on her accordion from time to time. She is topped, however, by Michael Gene Sullivan's performance as Sir Toby Belch. I'm not sure it should be legal that so much talent resides in one man, for Sullivan not only wrings peals of laughter from the audience with his expressive face and physical comic grace, but he also wrote SF Playhouse's most recent production, the brilliant and insightful The Great Khan. (My review of which you can read here.) In his coral pink suit and Panama hat, he's like a lovable, boisterous, slightly clueless uncle who may start drinking a little early in the day, but whom you love nonetheless.

But going so far over the top as to almost reach the exosphere is Atticus Shaindlin as Malvolio, Olivia's grasping steward. Tricked into thinking his lady Olivia loves him, he dresses and acts so outrageously that he is taken for a madman and locked away—yet still manages to steal scenes from inside his cell. His bravery as a performer is undeniable, and he is to be commended for it.

One of the play's most recognizable lines is "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." SF Playhouse has assembled some performers who were clearly born great, created a Twelfth Night that has achieved greatness—and thrust its greatness upon us in the audience.

Twelfth Night runs through January 15, 2021, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 3:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. The show is also available to be streamed. Tickets are $30-$100, available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.