Theater Review: Twelfth Night and Buffalo Kings

Two must-sees from Jobsite and freeFall.

click to enlarge MAKING WHOOPEE: Katrina Stevenson (Olivia) and Giles Davies (Malvolio) - are the bee’s knees in Twelfth Night. -  - CRAWFORD LONG
MAKING WHOOPEE: Katrina Stevenson (Olivia) and Giles Davies (Malvolio) are the bee’s knees in Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night
Runs through Feb. 1 at the Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse, 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun.; 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa,
(Four out of five stars)

The Buffalo Kings
Runs through Feb. 8 at freeFall Theatre, 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 2 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, $21-$44,
(Four out of five stars)

There are no weak links in Jobsite Theater’s Twelfth Night. This extraordinary production features one terrific performance after the next, and shines a clear light on Shakespeare’s classic that’s all the more welcome as the comedy’s true subjects are confusion and error.

In fact, there’s hardly a major character in Shakespere’s Illyria — or 1920s Ybor City, as this production would have it — who isn’t deceived, mistaken, or misinformed on some important issue. But we in the audience are never baffled: with actors like Maggie Mularz, Giles Davies and Roxanne Fay to carry us through the action, we’re finely attuned to every plot turn, and able to unknot every tangled relationship. And those are just three members of this stunning ensemble. There are another 10 who are quite as convincing, from Ned Averill-Snell as Sir Toby Belch to Jamie Jones as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Katrina Stevenson as the Countess Olivia and on and on. The effect is revelatory. I’ve seen Shakespeare productions that were funnier or more unpredictable, but I’ve seldom seen one that demonstrated more lapidary precision.

A brief (and selective) reminder of the plot: a certain Viola, saved from a shipwreck, takes on a man’s identity and goes to work for Duke Orsino. Orsino sends her to Countess Olivia, the woman he’s been vainly pursuing, but Olivia falls for Viola, not knowing she’s a woman. Meanwhile, Malvolio, Olivia’s steward, is tricked into thinking that Olivia’s in love with him, and goes to absurd lengths that he thinks she requires of him. When Viola’s twin brother Sebastian turns up in town, things get even wilder, and there’s even a certain Antonio who’s hot for Sebastian who’s hot for Olivia who can’t tell brother and sister apart …

Well, believe me, in this fine production it makes a lot of sense. David Jenkins’ staging is one of the best things he’s ever done, and Brian Smallheer’s set of an Yboresque plaza is exceedingly attractive (except for a badly painted sign on the backdrop). Bailee Booser’s jazz age costumes are witty and attractive — you won’t forget Davies’ outfit when he thinks he’s dressing for Olivia — and Jenkins’ sound design offers tunes F. Scott Fitzgerald might have listened to. While I’m naming names, let me congratulate four actors who’ve long been associated with Jobsite, but in this production outdo themselves: Jason Vaughan Evans, Chris Holcom, Michael C. McGreevy, and Ami Sallee. Outstanding work.

As is the whole show. I suggest you see it while you can.

click to enlarge FAMILY-SIZED COMEDY: Chris Crawford, Brian Shea, Joe Lauck, Katherine Michelle Tanner, Joseph Flynn and Jenny Aldrich in The Buffalo Kings. -  - kevin tighe
kevin tighe
FAMILY-SIZED COMEDY: Chris Crawford, Brian Shea, Joe Lauck, Katherine Michelle Tanner, Joseph Flynn and Jenny Aldrich in The Buffalo Kings.

A Comic Gem. It’s heartening to see a Bay area playwright write as well as Natalie Symons does in her winning tragi-farce, The Buffalo Kings. And it’s heartening to see that playwright’s work given a production as first-class as the one you’ll find over at freeFall Theatre.

On Jim Sorensen’s stunningly beautiful set of the King family living room and kitchen, seven characters embrace, snipe at, lecture, excoriate, adore and psychologically strip bare one another for two precious acts of laughter and nihilism, and they do it so ardently, my only major regret is that the evening’s not longer.

You think your family’s dysfunctional? Well, say hello to the Kings: there’s suicidal wife and mother Olive (the impeccable Katherine Michelle Tanner), her 15-year-old son and hate-crime victim Nick (the poignantly sincere Joseph Flynn), Olive’s hypochondriac brother Sam (the psychotically flustered Brian Shea), her unfaithful ex-husband Stuart (perfectly cast Sorensen), viciously honest matriarch Estelle (the somewhat unfocused Jenny Aldrich), and patriarch-with-Alzheimer’s Harold (the also inexact Joe. D. Lauck). There’s one other character — family friend, and vastly outnumbered former-crack-dealer-turned-Christian Pete Burke (the delightful Chris Crawford) — and when they’re all together at Christmas, their mutual desperation is hilarious (as William Blake said, excess of sorrow laughs).

Yes, fractured family reunions are a staple of contemporary theater (for example, in August: Osage Country), but Symons has an original vision that puts new spin on this trope. What she wants to tell us in Kings is that conflict and unhappiness aren’t proofs of personal failure, that the search for constant joy can only result in defeat, and that it’s positively normal to face crises as one proceeds through a lifetime. You don’t have to agree in order to enjoy The Buffalo Kings; but thanks to Symons’ canny writing, you at least have to consider that, weather patterns being what they are, maybe it’s not entirely sane to expect nothing but sunshine.

As I said, the play’s too short: the second act seems abbreviated, in need of one further scene. But aside from this, The Buffalo Kings is an enchanting, stimulating pleasure. Kudos to Eric Davis (also the director) for investing in a local author; and kudos to Symons for being so well worth the risk. 

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