Ol' Will Shakespeare loved his tales of shipwrecks and gender-bending mistaken identity.
He serves up both in “Twelfth Night,” and Firebelly Productions is presenting the comedy as part of the Shakespeare in Washington initiative, which will have the national capital area awash in Bardmania for the first six months of the year.
The show's end result is generally pleasing, with creative staging and good performances, though the pacing on opening night (a chilly and ice-slicked Valentine's Day) was a bit sluggish.
“Twelfth Night” is among the works by Shakespeare that are all but incomprehensible the first time you see them, unless you've studied up beforehand. But its subtleties and twists become gratifying upon multiple viewings.
To wit: Viola and her twin brother, Sebastian, were shipwrecked, and now each thinks the other is dead. Viola dresses herself up as a man (giving herself the name Cesario) to serve as a courtier to the Orsino, the local duke. Orsino, meanwhile, is in love with Olivia, who spurns all his advances.
To pull out an old chestnut, “mayhem ensues” - particularly with the arrival of the classic, drunken Shakespearean second bananas Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Firebelly's mission is to advance the talents of young actors, and the cast is comprised of both familiar faces and newcomers. In total, their work was quite good.
Amanda Thickpenny (as Viola/Cesario) and Mikal Evans (as Olivia) provide the most nuanced performances of the evening. Ryan Nealy is effective in the limited role of the duke.
But it is in the secondary roles that a “Twelfth Night” performance rises or falls. And here, the reviews are somewhat mixed.
John Tweel and Dave Daniels, as Belch and Aguecheek, were almost in full form on opening night, but their performances need a little more depth, which hopefully will arrive during the brief run.
I was quite fond of Brian Lee Huynh, Joanna Edie and Joshua Drew as the servants of Olivia, who get some of the funniest lines and situations of the show.
Jon Reynolds plays the jester/fool, another effective Shakespeare device. He's an early contender for my semi-official � Jim Jorgensen Award for Most Effective Portrayal of a Creepy Character in Northern Virginia Theatre” Award (patent pending). It's a freaky portrayal, one that, ultimately, I found satisfying.
Working in the cozy confines of Theatre on the Run in Shirlington, the creative team uses the space well and keeps the visual stimuli always in motion.
But the show tries to be all things to all people, or at least all things to all the actors, and at times plods along as we get to the conclusion. The end result is a very good two-hour play, stuck inside a two-hour, 30-minute running time.
There's nothing wrong with this show that a circumcision of 20 or 30 minutes' worth of material wouldn't cure. That may be a little much to ask for a short-run production, but, with some less elaborate editing and a focus on even more deft pacing, the end of this show's run could wind up stronger than the beginning.
A worthy evening of theater, but subsequent weeks could be even stronger.
“Twelfth Night” continues through March 3 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Dr. in Arlington. Tickets are $15.
For performance dates and times, and more information, call (703) 409-2372 or see the Web site at www.firebellyproductions.net.