In 18 seasons of theatre, San Francisco Playhouse has yet to present a play by Shakespeare. It always seemed to us that there were enough companies tackling the Bard’s work in every corner of Bay Area, and the community didn’t need us to add to the field of riches. So why now, after all these years, are we presenting Twelfth Night? Before I even started reading the play, I was immediately attracted to the adapters’ Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shana Taub’s words in the forward; our Illyria is set in an imagined city where all cultures are welcome. Filled with different musical styles – New Orleans Jazz to Motown soul, to Broadway showtune, to 80’s pop – to create as inclusive a world as possible. What could be better than that vision for our holiday season as we promote an inclusive and diverse community as ideals to be reached for?
And reading through this lyrical collision of Elizabethan pentameter with rhythm and blues, I was amazed yet again at Shakespeare’s capacity to be so far ahead of him time. Radically in contrast to prevailing Elizabethan views, he clearly understood the fluidity of gender; how human souls can be at home anywhere on the spectrum between masculine and feminine. Perhaps as a young actor, he had played parts like Juliet or Desdemona, and through empathy, while inhabiting a feminine spirit, recognized in himself a capacity to feel what a woman feels. And then, in Twelfth Night, by subversively putting his protagonists in disguise, both to pass themselves off and be perceived as the opposite sex, he awakens in them a far greater understanding.
Making Shakespeare’s point even stronger, the Twelfth Night of the title is actually the twelfth night of Christmas. In the late 16th century, it was a day when nobles and peasants could exchange places, so that on the social as well as the gender level, they were given the opportunity to empathize with their opposites. It was and remains a day to throw away the distinctions that separate us and celebrate the unity of human experience, the common bonds we all share. Shana Taub sums it up magnificently in the lyrics to her closing song:
If we see through the eyes of another,
If we hear through the ears of somebody else,
If we open our hearts to each other’s beat,
What a better world it would.
How could we not do this play?! What could be a better message for our season of hope?
– Artistic Director
Wera V. W.
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