Theater Review — Tampa Shakespeare Festival, plus a preview of USFSP's As You Like It

Tampa’s Bardfest battles a few environmental factors to deliver classic drama. St. Pete gears up for its own Shakespeare in the park.

MacbethRomeo and Juliet
Tampa Shakespeare Festival
Water Works Park, Tampa.
Runs through March 22.
Macbeth: March 13, 15, 19, 21.
Romeo and Juliet: March 12, 14, 20, 22
6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m.
Sundays, Free.
3 out of 5 stars for both plays.

The Tampa Shakespeare Festival has arrived, and it’s off to a good, if imperfect, start. There’s some excellent acting (along with the so-so sort), fine costume design (but evening lighting is a problem), and so much wonderful Shakespearean English, you don’t really mind the occasional competition from airplanes, powerboats, and Fido the Unimpressed. Water Works Park turns out to be an ingratiating venue for free, outdoor histrionics, and the bare stage of the Downtown Rotary Pavilion is capacious — too capacious? — and easy to see from your lawn chair or blanket. So give these artists time to iron out a few wrinkles, and the Bay area will have something even American Stage in the Park never offered: the Bard’s works, classically performed (no anxious jazzing-up). By all indications, something valuable this way comes.

The Festival is offering two plays in repertory: Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. The best news about Macbeth is the acting of Jack Holloway in the title role. A few years ago, Holloway was the most promising of our young actors, the one you could count on to turn a role into a revelation. But then he became artistic director of Hat Trick Theatre, and almost ceased to matter as an interpreter of challenging parts. Well, things change: now Holloway is associate a.d. of this Shakespeare combine, and that happily means that he’s back wrestling with angels. His Scottish Schemer is earthy, robust, and ambitious; he hardly needs his viperous wife to spur him on to murder, which occurs to him as the obvious solution to most human problems. As Lady Macbeth, Melissa Ruchong is equally vigorous: she has a visceral need to rise at any cost, and would cheerfully cannibalize her husband’s victims if necessary. As the king who becomes the first of those victims, Derrick Phillips is solid, and as doomed Banquo, Steve Fisher is first a likable good buddy and then a quietly reproachful ghost.

Most of the other actors aren’t as interesting. But more worrisome than tepid acting are the technical failings of the new festival. Sound quality is the worst of these: without microphones, the actors have to shout most of their lines, and though this works for some minutes, after a while it becomes counter-productive. What can it mean that, during a soliloquy, Macbeth shouts his thoughts? How much can a portrayal vary without dynamics of soft and loud? The more quietly speaking actors can hardly be heard at all, so that’s not the answer. And the problem is compounded when night falls on the outdoor theater, and, with only five lamps on each wall of the stage, we begin to lose the ability to see the details of the performers’ faces. Dan Granke’s direction is more than adequate, but when hearing and seeing are both difficult, there can only be one imperative: bring in the electricians.

Of course, this difficulty in seeing pertains solely to evening performances; in a matinee show like the Romeo and Juliet I witnessed, every smile, wince, and grimace is easily visible, and only listening is occasionally harder than it should be. Still, this R&J is mostly pleasurable. Likably directed by Megan Lamasney, it offers a splendid Romeo in Jamie Jones, an actor who’s mostly had small parts in other shows, and here capably demonstrates that he’s been a leading man all along. Jones seems perfect for this celebrated part: he’s tall and handsome and possessed of a stentorian voice. His Romeo is a callow youth who identifies totally with his emotional life, and probably falls in love with a different heart-breaker once a week. Unfortunately, Regan Moore as Juliet isn’t nearly so interesting: petite, petulant and whiny, she lacks the charisma the part demands (though she handles Shakespeare’s language very effectively).

The best of the other actors are Dan Granke as a ferocious Tybalt, Derrick Phillips as a supercilious Lord Capulet, Nathan Juliano as a companionable Benvolio, and Holloway again, playing Juliet’s Nurse, for laughs, in drag. As all Bardalators know, some Mercutios steal this show; Molly Schoolmeester doesn’t. The period costumes here, as in Macbeth, are attractively designed by Gi Young Sung, and the few set pieces brought in are all that we need. Director Lamasney occasionally has her actors declaim from offstage; this usually works very well.

Anyway, welcome to the world, Tampa Shakespeare Festival. May you have many successes and all the staying power you require. Free Shakespeare in the Park! It’s a wonderful idea, long overdue. What a pleasure when the future becomes now.

St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival: As You LIke It
When: March 12-15 and March 19-22
Price: Admission is “pay what you can” and seating will be first-come, first-served.

The St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival will be giving us a more lighthearted Bard with As You Like It. The brainchild of USF St. Petersburg professor Lisa Starks-Estes, USFSP alumna Veronica Matthews and the USFSP Shakespeare Society, the SPSF production stars students, faculty, staff and alumni. In addition, original music composed by Los Angeles music industry veteran Mark Matthews will provide the show's soundtrack. The Williams House Courtyard on the USFSP campus doubles as the Forest of Arden as we follow the travails of exiled Rosalind and Orlando, both driven from their homes into the the forest, crossing paths with the wiley Touchstone, the cynical Jacques, a merry band of men. Some of the play's virtues include witty banter (especially from Touchstone) and a fascinating look at gender thanks to a cross-dressing Rosalind. Performances will run Thursdays through Sundays on March 12-15 and March 19-22 at 8 p.m. at the Williams House Courtyard on the USFSP campus.

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