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A pentameter picnic with Collaborative Arts' Twelfth Night 

Driving by The Green on Friday night on my way to the Queen City Virtuosi debut -- and returning for the Sunday evening outdoor performance -- I could see that the Carolina Shakespeare Festival, presented by Collaborative Arts, is becoming quite the place to hang out, unfurl your best picnic gear, pour yourself a bordeaux or knock down a few brews, and imbibe some choice Bard.

Collaborative Arts has grown savvier in a couple of ways since their first comedy on The Green in 2006. Their scheduling has become more prudent. Opening their maiden effort in early May, when temperatures plummeted after sundown, turned A Midsummer Night's Dream into something of a nightmare. Taking Twelfth Night, the current production, to the end of May and into June is far more picnic-friendly.

More importantly, Collaborative has grown more polished as a Shakespeare machine. They've always managed to gather fine acting talent for their free offerings, and their outdoor sound -- wafting over a considerable greensward amid motorcycles, birds, airplanes, and construction cranes -- has always been outstanding, engineered by Total Event Production.

But the hamming up and dumbing down, by actors and directors worried about whether a Third Millennium audience could comprehend and endure two hours of Elizabethan pentameters, was often as amplified as the voices. Director/co-producer Joe Copley gets his cast to shed their stressed hyperactivity, jettison condescension, and believe in the text.

And he casts admirably, deploying Greta Marie Zandstra into the diva widow role of Olivia and turning the rotund Peter Smeal loose on Olivia's dissolute uncle, Sir Toby Belch -- towering over Andrea King, who cross-dresses as the timorous Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Elise Wilkerson does a reliably nuanced job as Viola/Cesario, the disguised gentlewoman who woos Olivia on behalf of the man she secretly adores, Orsino. With Copley somehow able to induce Chaz Pofahl to shed the patronizing double underlines he has applied to all his blank verse in the past, Orsino proves to be worthy of Viola's adoration.

In fact, the romantic comedy they're giving away at The Green -- though donations are solicited -- is the equal of the NC Shakespeare production that I saw in High Point back in 2004. Collaborative only falls short by comparison in delivering the underlying gravity that should accompany Malvolio's hilarious humiliation. It's not that Chad Calvert couldn't bring us up short as Malvolio. No, Calvert is the essence of dignity and a fine Puritan. It's just that Copley has him keeping it light.

That's one of Craig Spradley's jobs as Feste, the troubadour fool timeshared by Olivia and Orsino. When he isn't cracking wise or singing some of Shakespeare's greatest lyrics, Copley cleverly has him solving the biggest technical problem that has plagued previous romps at The Green. The clearly amped sound comes through unobtrusive loudspeakers, making it difficult at times to spot who's speaking -- and where.

Spradley obligingly redirects our attention when the action jumps from one side of the park to the other, so we never miss a shtick. But he's the clown, so he draws a pardon for his hokeyness. I do miss Feste singing "Come Away, Death," my favorite Shakespeare song, but Spradley is also following orders to keep it light.

So Collaborative is still underestimating today's groundlings a little bit, but their confidence is on the rise, and so is the sophistication of their Shakespeare. A pentameter picnic, to be sure.

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