Twelfth Night is quality theater

Gender-bending hilarity via Shakespeare, Ruth Eckerd and some of Tampa Bay's best actors.

Brian Shea is back.

The wonderful actor and three-time winner of the Best of the Bay award is playing Malvolio in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at Ruth Eckerd Hall, and it's a performance to treasure. Shea is everything Shakespeare must have wanted Malvolio to be: comically priggish, puritanical, self-infatuated, snobbish — and then, after he's deceived by Sir Toby Belch and friends, utterly ridiculous. There's a lot of good acting in this Eckerd Theatre Company production, but Shea's hilarious performance is so iconic, it seems to define poor, ambitious Malvolio once and for all. Add the impressive work by Dahlia Legault as Viola, Jack Holloway as Toby Belch, and Gi Sung as Maria, and you have one of the most enjoyable Shakespeares ever to play in the Bay area. I have no idea why it's been so poorly advertised, but this is superb work, not to be missed. I'm still savoring the memory.

You may remember Twelfth Night as one of Shakespeare's comedies about gender confusion — As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice are two others — and it's easy to sound confusing when detailing the complicated plot. In brief: a young woman named Viola washes up, after a shipwreck, on the shores of Illyria, and decides that it's safer to pretend that she's a man. So she calls herself Cesario and goes to work for Duke Orsino. Since Orsino's in love with the dismissive Olivia, he sends Cesario to her to represent him in his love affair. But Olivia falls for Cesario instead, and meanwhile Viola/Cesario falls in love with Orsino. To make matters worse, Olivia's steward Malvolio is tricked by certain detractors into believing that Olivia is really in love with him. When Viola/Cesario's twin brother Sebastian also shows up in Illyria, the chaos threatens to turn to madness. Or maybe love is a sort of madness in any case, and Shakespeare just wants to throw a little light on the asylum.

Speaking of light, this production is full of luminaries from both sides of the Bay, not only in acting but also in design. To begin with the acting, though: Jack Holloway is splendid as Sir Toby Belch, a man who just wants the right to get drunk and carouse without having to face the censure of stuffed shirts like Malvolio. Whether inciting Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Barrow) to chase after Olivia, or indulging in swordfights (which he also choreographed), Holloway reminds us how much we've been missing him on our larger stages. We've seen a lot more of Legault — last year's Best of the Bay winner — but it's cheering to discover her in a Shakespeare play finally, and to discover with what facility she speaks the Bard's words. She doesn't try very hard to seem masculine, though, a choice which makes me wonder at its intention. As Olivia's servant Maria, Sung is a real revelation, cheerful and clever and, in a small part, multi-dimensional. Other standouts include Paul McColgan as Orsino, Grayson Ross as Olivia — a sweeter interpretation than any I've seen before — and Ian Beck as Antonio, Sebastian's protector. And I'm intrigued by Steve Smith, who plays the wise jester Feste with irrepressible good humor, but who somehow doesn't manage to project much beyond the footlights. The splendid 18th-century costumes are the work of Amy J. Cianci, and the terrific set, representing a busy waterfront of yore, is by the talented Steven K. Mitchell. The play is directed by Julia Flood, who has to be congratulated first on her casting and then on the kinetic energy that suffuses her staging. The impeccable lighting is by Joseph P. Oshry.

The Bay area doesn't see much Shakespeare these days — even less since American Stage took him out of the Park — so we're losing the opportunity to discover which of our actors has the Elizabethan stuff. Brian Shea is one of those actors — another was the late Jeff Norton — and now we see that Holloway and Legault are also initiates. I'm grateful to Eckerd Theatre Company for supplying this need so very capably, and I wait for other companies to come along and do their part (and not with another Hamlet, thank you). There's gold in them thar hills. Let's have more prospectors. And soon.

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