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Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at San Francisco Playhouse Offers a Vision of a Truly Inclusive Community

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at San Francisco Playhouse Offers a Vision of a Truly Inclusive Community

Shaina Taub & Laurie Woolery's musical adaptation of the Shakespeare comedy runs through January 14th

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at San Francisco Playhouse Offers a Vision of a Truly Inclusive Community
The couples embrace in a quadruple wedding ceremony in San Francisco Playhouse's musical version of As You Like It

"All the world's a stage." Thus begins the musical adaptation of Shakespeare's As You Like It now running at San Francisco Playhouse. Though still performed by the character of Jacques, the famous monolog has been transformed into an opening song inviting us into a world whose inhabitants cover a broad spectrum of races and genders. The soaring melody (affectingly sung by Deanalís Arocho Resto) comes with an undertone of yearning that hints at the many plot complications to come. While we may long to find fulfillment in a fully inclusive world, it's gonna take some work to get us there.

Adaptor Laurie Woolery and composer/lyricist Shaina Taub came up with the idea of using Shakespeare's play as a vehicle to make theatre more accessible for The Public Theatre's "Public Works" program in New York's Central Park back in 2017. Their concept comes with an abundance of goodwill and a whole trove of tasty tunes. Of course, in any battle between accessible folk-pop music and Shakespeare's densely poetic language, the former is gonna win out every time, so the Shakespeare part of that equation is a little patchy here. Given that the show comes in at under two hours of playing time even with the interpolation of some 23(!) musical numbers, it's no surprise that the multi-pronged plot comes in such brief snatches that it is sometimes hard to follow if you're not already super familiar with the play.

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at San Francisco Playhouse Offers a Vision of a Truly Inclusive Community
Exiles find community in the forest of Arden in San Francisco Playhouse's musical version of As You Like It

The book of the show follows the basic contours of Shakespeare's five-act play, perhaps too faithfully given its relative brevity, with some key characters reconceived in the interest of exploring, or perhaps disregarding, gender. It remains a tale of mismatched folks seeking love and destiny while frolicking in the Forest of Arden, leading to a celebratory quadruple wedding. While we still have Orlando and Rosalind as the central hetero couple (with the latter disguising herself as the young man Ganymede), and his brother Oliver and Celia as a secondary hetero couple, we also get Touchstone and Andy as a male-identifying couple and Phoebe and Silvia as a female-identifying couple. I realize I have spared you a good 95% of the plot right there, but frankly much of it whizzes by so fast in this telling that you'd be hard-pressed to glean much more than that from the actual performance.

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at San Francisco Playhouse Offers a Vision of a Truly Inclusive Community
Orlando (Nikita Burshteyn) encounters Rosalind (River Navaille) in disguise as Ganymede
in the forest of Arden in As You Like It at San Francisco Playhouse

The production is not set in any specific time period, so the design work calls on all manner of styles and eras and cultures. This fosters the guiding principle of inclusivity, but it also means that the exuberant visuals are a bit all over the place. While I enjoyed many of Kathleen Qiu's clever costumes (brilliant idea to put court jester Touchstone in a Pee-wee Hermanesque suit and bowtie!), it felt like she might have just run out of imagination and/or budget when in the wedding finale she dresses all of the couples in lovely white and cream tones, but provides only some of them with shoes that match. The set by Bill English and Heather Kenyon includes two nested false prosceniums that nicely frame the action in the court scenes and are switched out for colorful Tiffany glass trees for the Arden scenes, but the images chosen for the rear projections are too prosaic and earthbound for the largely fanciful vibe of the show. David Robertson's lighting is efficient and effective, which is no easy task given the expansiveness of the playing area. Nicole Helfer's folk-dancey choreography is performed enthusiastically by the entire cast, and it's always a kick to see a show where everyone gets to dance.

Director Bill English's major achievement is getting his entire cast on the same page in terms of tone and approach to the Shakespearean language. If nuance is sometimes sacrificed, it's in service of providing as much clarity as possible. Of the many principals, Abigail Esfira Campbell was delightful as Celia, even if her late-developing relationship with Oliver is given short shrift by the truncated script. Nicholas Yenson as Touchstone and Ezra Reaves as Andy made the kind of charming pair that has you rooting for their inevitable coming together from the get-go. Best of all, the central couple was exceedingly well portrayed by Nikita Burshteyn as Orlando and River Navaille as Rosalind. Both actors had a firm grasp of their character's emotional journey, sang beautifully and had a nice push-pull rapport with each other. Also, what a pleasure it was that when going incognito as Ganymede, Navaille actually registered credibly as a young man, so for once we weren't left pondering why Orlando can't see through Rosalind's obvious disguise.

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at San Francisco Playhouse Offers a Vision of a Truly Inclusive Community
Deanalís Arocho Resto (center) as Jacques reprises "All the World's a Stage" just before the finale
of San Francisco Playhouse's As You Like It

The show concludes with a reprise of a rousing anthem called "In Arden" with the incantatory phrase "all are welcome here." It is performed with such generosity of spirit that the sentiment runs deeper than just some trite phrase. The entire cast sings the words like they truly mean them. SF Playhouse apparently chose this As You Like It as their holiday show because of its message of goodwill to all. I'd say it was an apt choice.

(all photos by Jessica Palopoli)

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As You Like It runs through January 14, 2023 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Running time is approximately 1:50 with no intermission. For tickets and more information, visit sfplayhouse.org or call the box office at 415-677-9596.



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