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An entertaining but uneven "Twelfth Night" starts off the Richmond Shakespeare Festival.

Overcast "Night"

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I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival. When it was initiated by the Encore! Theatre Company four years ago, the festival featured irreverent and imaginative reconstructions of the Bard's works that were sometimes frayed and a little frantic, but gosh they were fun. The beginning of the 1998 production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" with two characters taking the stage in red bathing suits to the strains of the "Baywatch" theme remains one of my all-time favorite theatrical moments.

But children grow up, and now in its adolescence, RSF has begun taking itself more seriously. This is not a bad thing. Last summer's vibrant productions, particularly an impressive "Hamlet," demonstrated that artistic director Grant Mudge and his band of players could mount top-notch shows while still maintaining an impish spark. Best of all, they didn't get bogged down in the staid reticence that can doom a Shakespeare production (e.g., TheatreVirginia's "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1999).

However, the opener this year, "Twelfth Night," directed by Michael Tolaydo, reveals some of the festival's adolescent awkwardness. Don't get me wrong: This show has some delightful moments and features many appealing performances. But a collection of good parts doesn't necessarily make for a cohesive whole. And while Tolaydo has many interesting ideas, the way he has assembled them here doesn't always work.

Part of the problem for Tolaydo may have been the play itself, which has a dark subtext rumbling around under its familiar mistaken-identity love story. Viola (Tiza Garland) and Sebastian (Jerry Tan) are twins who get shipwrecked in the romantic land of Illyria, where the local duke, Orsino (Don Istrate), pines in vain for Olivia (Susan Sanford). The twins get separated and Viola dresses herself as a man, calls herself Cesario and goes to work as a servant for Orsino. A strange triangle develops when Olivia falls in love with Viola as Cesario. In the meantime, a steward of Olivia's, the dour Malvolio (Stephen Coy), becomes the subject of a cruel prank at the hands of Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch (James Denvil).

Two performances epitomize the awkwardness of this production: Istrate's droll take on Orsino and Anthony Cerbins' portrayal of the bungling Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Both actors are fantastic: Istrate's exaggerated melancholy is hilarious; Cerbins' flamboyant goofiness has shades of genius. But these two performances are so wildly different, they barely seem as if they should exist on the same planet, let alone in the same show.

Though he doesn't get a lot of stage time, Tan demonstrates what this production could have been with his self-possessed take on Sebastian. Early on in the play, he is pleasantly jaunty and not above some playful martial arts. But when he comes face to face with Olivia, he is the picture of lovestruck awe.

Tolaydo has employed a talented design team to create a beautiful production; Sarah Grady's costumes are a particular standout. But as good-looking as it is, "Twelfth Night" still falls a step or two shy of fulfilling the promise of RSF's childhood. Here's hoping this adolescent phase is just a temporary stop on the way to a robust maturity.



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