The true test of a Shakespeare performance is how well the characters turn words into visible action. By that measure, Jobsite Theater's current production of Twelfth Night at the Shimberg Playhouse succeeds.
There is much gamboling, capering and stumbling about in the play, set in 1920s Ybor City. There are pantomimed puns, often of the vulgar variety. And there is the colorful spectacle of a self-important man making an absolute fool of himself. Any of this would amuse the most casual observer.
But there is also, for example, the subtlety of Olivia, the rich and elegant countess. As played by Katrina Stevenson, Olivia is lifted by love and plagued by doubt. Her romantic attraction to Viola, disguised as a young man, is palpable. So is her nervous hesitation in pursuit. Olivia is the most complex character in the play, and Stevenson's performance is luminous.
In truth, the elocution of some of the other characters could be muddy at times, or at least required some getting used to. On Sunday, Chris Holcom's voicing of Duke Orsino's famous opening speech, a paean to romantic love, was marred by the noisy ushering of two chattering latecomers to seats in front of most of the audience and to the right of the stage.
In other moments — as in the clever dialogue between the clown and Viola about the flexible, evocative, exasperating power of words — Shakespeare's cavorting language rang clear.
Twelfth Night is about both love and foolishness. The duke loves the countess; the countess loves the messenger boy; the boy, who is really a woman, loves the duke. "O Time, thou must untangle this, not I," says the boy/woman Viola. "It is too hard a knot for me t' untie." As Viola, Maggie Mularz is eloquent in her predicament.
But now, here come the drunkards: the blustering Sir Toby Belch and the callow Sir Andrew Aguecheek, whose money Toby means to drain. There's a lot of broad humor in their nightly revels. Jamie Jones brings a lanky ridiculousness to the part of Andrew, which is quite fun to watch. White-bearded Ned Averill-Snell must have spent some high times in low company to play Toby so well.
The central joke in the play concerns what happens to Malvolio, Olivia's priggish steward. After Malvolio objects once too often to the disorder Toby and Andrew bring to the house, they and Maria (Olivia's maid-servant, played with gusto by Ami Sallee) connive to mislead Malvolio into believing that Olivia loves him and that he should pitch his woo in ridiculous attire. Malvolio's crime is said to be self-love, but as Giles Davies plays him, it's more like self-importance. His early scenes are perhaps too stiff in the back, but his haughty presumption is all the more hilarious when he makes a fool of himself.
Director David M. Jenkins' setting of the play in 1920s Ybor City, Tampa's Latin Quarter, is an unhealthy graft. It gives nice flavor to his musical soundtrack and the costumes by Bailee Booser; not so much to Brian Smallheer's simple set, with its amateurishly lettered Burgert's Photography sign and Spanish moss wrapped around the street lamps.
Ybor City seems more marketing ploy than artistic choice. It adds no meaning and sometimes even distracts; it's discordant, for example, for anyone with a vivid sense of Tampa history to imagine Elizabethan English spoken on the streets once trod by immigrant cigar workers and the great Cuban patriot Jose Martí.
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In any case, the play more than survives. The supporting roles of Fabian, Valentine, Sebastian, Antonio and Curio are fulfilled, respectively, by Jason Vaughan Evans, Edward Gomez, Nick Hoop, Michael C. McGreevy and Spencer Meyers.
But the secret weapon is Roxanne Fay, as Feste the clown. The court jester is often the wisest person on the stage, the only one who sees what's really going on. Fay inhabits the part — sly, mischievous and elusive. And as the singer of satirical songs, she manages to slip a little Fats Waller into Shakespeare's parable of mistaken identity and self-delusion:
"One never knows, do one."
That's a graft that works.