Jazzy ‘Twelfth Night’ set in San Francisco 

There was a celebratory mood at opening night of the African-American Shakespeare Co.’s new production of “Twelfth Night” last weekend.  

It wasn’t just the high spirits radiating from the stage as the company performed Shakespeare’s rollicking comedy, there was a lot to celebrate offstage as well.  

The company has weathered its share of ups and downs, but now boasts a new artistic director, a handsome new home in the Buriel Clay Theatre at the African-American Art and Culture Complex, a revitalized acting company and a rising profile throughout the Bay Area and beyond.

The combination of these elements is clearly working its magic — and fostering the company’s continuing mission of reimagining the classics for contemporary audiences. As artistic director, L. Peter Callender said in his preshow remarks, “African-American Shakespeare Co. is always in the black.”

Callender’s production, which brings the company’s 2010-11 season to an upbeat conclusion, serves that mission in nearly every particular.

The director sets Shakespeare’s comedy of shipwrecks, mistaken identities and blossoming love in 1940s San Francisco.  

When the heroine, Viola (the lovely Renée Wilson), and her brother, Sebastian (an agile Romulo Torres), wash ashore, it’s to a jazz- and blues-fueled score written and performed by acclaimed composer Marcus Shelby.  

Sets by Kemit Amenophis and costumes by Kristen Lowe recall the vibrant heyday of The City’s own Fillmore jazz district.

 Callender directs at a snappy pace, and the cast is fully committed. Wilson’s Viola, who spends most of the play disguised as the page Cesario, weathers the pangs of first love with grace and wit.  

Rebecca Frank’s Olivia registers her attraction to Cesario with a winning mix of elegance and sensuality. Matt Jones’ Orsino is aptly imperious as he delivers his opening speech, “If music be the food of love.”

The comedic scenes are broadly played by J. “Darryl” Williams’ expansive Toby Belch, Martin Grizzell’s foppish Andrew Aguecheek, Charles Branklyn’s jive-talking Feste and Chris Dewey’s crisply articulate Fabian.

Lauren Spencer adds spice as the mastermind Maria, and Armando McClain brings urgency to the role of Antonio. Erik Banks, Percival Arcibal and Unique Jenkins contribute in supporting roles, and Leslie Ivy joins Shelby in a couple of torchy songs.

If the pivotal scene in which the others entrap the servant Malvolio (Michael Uy Kelly) doesn’t quite deliver its customary sting, the play’s final moment of reconciliation is cause for jubilation.

And so is African-American Shakespeare Co.’s continued success.


Twelfth Night

Presented by the African-American Shakespeare Co.

Where: African-American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., San Francisco,

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. most Sundays; closes May 1

$15 to $30

Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.african-americanshakes.org

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Georgia Rowe

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