City Lit's production of Twelfth Night proves that big things do come in small packages. The theater is small and the stage is smaller, forcing some creative thinking in terms of set design and staging. The actors, however, bring something stellar to the show and transform what could have been a low-key production into a truly tremendous show.
This is in large part thanks to Tiffany Joy Ross who is brilliant as Viola, the play's lead. She does double duty; not only does she act the part, she acts the part of a character acting a part. There is a difference between playing a boy and playing a girl playing a boy; a fine line, maybe, but Ross walks it with ease. She is emotional and tragic in her first scene in which she still is a woman. Ross' range for grief is incredible and very believable, but her real charm is the way she portrays a young man while not entirely losing her girlish sensibilities. Whether making mooney eyes at Orsino (Jeremy Cudd), looking shocked or confused at Olivia's (Vanessa Greenway) unwanted affections, or collapsing into hysterical, high-pitched weeping and foot stomping at the prospect of a duel, she sparkles in her scenes.
Another highlight is Frank Nall's portrayal of Sir Toby Belch. After this performance, everyone will want this fun and hilarious character as their drinking buddy. With his ham-handed and perfectly over-the-top performance, however, Robert McLean as Malvolio steals the show every second he is onstage. As the pompous servant vying for Olivia, McLean is unctuous and uproarious, disturbing and delightful, malicious and marvelous. No gesture or expression is thrown away; even in the background of certain scenes, you can't stop watching—or laughing.
The sets, unfortunately, are lackluster. A series of wooden frames protrude from the floor and hang from the ceiling, some of which are used as doorways, some of which are merely decorative. Behind all these hangs a white curtain, which is backlit with different color filters depending on the scene. This company have a very small space to work with, so an underscored set design is necessary, but the color-changing curtain could have done more for the changing scenes and the mood of each act. By playing this up even more, and by using more extensive props, the show probably could have done away with the pro/intruding frames altogether.
Costumes are well-suited to the performance, though they fail to be a real highlight of the show. Every character looks their part, but their clothing seems more an afterthought than a carefully planned costuming scheme, lacking consistency with some of the choices (some men wear knee-high boots while others simple dress shoes). This hardly distracts from the action, and is more than compensated for by this troupe's admiral job at tackling Shakespeare for the first time. Deserving of both our laughter and our hands, City Lit strives to please.