When it comes to theater, some shows need only dramatic and literary analysis. Others demand topography.

For even though a broad assortment of theater companies calls this region home, most theatrical productions are rarely uniform in their development. Nor do theater-going audiences particularly expect them to be–at least not at the levels beneath the handful of local union stages like North Carolina Theatre, Playmakers Repertory Company and Broadway Series South.

No one goes to black boxes like Durham’s Manbites Dog Theater or UNC’s Swain Hall, home to the innovative Streetsigns and Wordshed colonies, expecting to see intricate, photorealistic sets or hand-tailored period clothing. And no helicopter is ever going to appear to lift off in mid-show from Gallery Two at Artspace, where the Raleigh Ensemble Players hold court. Nor is this considered, on the whole, that great a loss: The artistic sensibilities at work in these venues tend to value finely detailed characterizations and cutting-edge contemporary scripts. Frequently these and other companies achieve those goals on minimal stages that imply a world much more often than they define it. “Uneven” is no pejorative in these houses: It’s a mantra, one that’s willingly embraced.

But company aesthetics and interests aren’t the only factors that play into uneven theater. For the great majority of regional theaters, budget is a determinant as well. Since most theaters pay actors little or no money for their labor, directors generally take what they can get from a largely volunteer population. And few companies have the luxury of burning through tens of thousands of dollars each year for sets and costumes destined to be used once or twice–and then recycled or yard-saled afterward. As a result, much of the success of regional theater is based on companies carefully calculating the corners they can cut, and those parts of the onstage world that can be safely left to the imagination.

As a result, up-close acting regularly outflanks fog machines and lasers in one house. In another, we tend to believe the costumes more often than the actors. Meanwhile, set and sound are rarely more than an afterthought in a third. Since most shows tend to elevate differing sets of production elements at the expense of others, regional theaters routinely present their audiences with differing problems in what might be called theatrical topography.

The most extreme version of this in recent memory was the enigma of Heidi Jacot’s same-sex Romeo and Juliet in November 2001. Its set consisted of a single metal folding chair–a challenge to the imagination, certainly, but no fatal obstacle as long as the other elements were strong. They weren’t: A largely unfortunate cast of six made thin soup of Shakespeare’s characters–except for David Lang’s nuanced cross-gender work as Juliet’s nurse, which clearly qualified as one of the best performances this region saw all year. Lang’s interpretation was so out of place from those of his colleagues that it seemed to have been spliced in from a completely different show.

Such extremes clearly don’t apply to The Open Door Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, which started off the new year last week at Carrboro ArtsCenter. Kit Weinert’s ambient, original soundtrack of gongs, chimes and percussion is every bit as colorful as Rob Hamilton’s fantastic, multi-level set. His imaginative, haphazard achievement in discarded fabric, upholstery, lights and disassembled electronica evokes an eccentric, shadowed playspace of the mind. In it, an attic morphs into a shoreline where the detritus of a civilization has been deposited, before both segue into the backstage of a carnival in decline. Nora Pedersen and Alyson Tytell’s ragbag costumes suggest a similar castoff mélange.

And director Michael Babbitt’s eye for stage composition and scene construction has never been stronger. A series of images burns in throughout the pageant. A fool with a shaved and tattooed head draws the characters onto the stage in a choreographed opening invocation. There is a sea storm worthy of The Tempest. A goth Olivia in white lace, black unitard, page-boy haircut and Doc Martins slumbers beneath a 1950s floor lamp and a carny poster: She is a lifeless, life-sized puppet deposited on an old upholstered chair. Orsino greets a golden dawn in an enviable Xanadu–while siblings Viola and Sebastian, separated by the storm, reach toward each other in a slow-motion dream.

But other elements significantly lag behind the visual and audio elements in this production. Having fully explored the extremities of anger, avarice and malice in earlier productions, it’s a given that Dante Walker can assemble and unleash an emotional thunderstorm in no time flat. Now more attention needs be paid to all of the other gears between the zero-to-sixty he so effortlessly jumps; the nuances and subtle shadings of emotion, empathy, individual moments–and velocity–that give texture and variance to those overarching notes he relies on.

As Olivia, Bobbi Vinson’s costume, hair and makeup design are impeccable, but if the director never adequately grounds her in the grief of a brother’s death to start with, the variance between her mourning and her rapidly awakening interest in Cesario is minimized. Frederick Frazier’s an urbane Sebastian, but we never understand why Ben Tedder follows him around as Antonio, since character construction and costuming choices erase the differences in class that might explain it.

While Jordan Smith convinces in brief appearances as a sea captain and the stuffy Father Tempus, the overweening vanity so crucial to Malvolio’s rise and subsequent comic fall is never adequately established to begin with. Without it, Maria’s mid-show counterfeit ruse (with co-conspirators Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek) is built on air. Rick Lonon gives a life-sized–and therefore somewhat underinflated–portrayal to Sir Toby Belch, a larger-than-life comic character. Kevin Poole cuts an interesting figure in this production–the fool as slacker–while Benjamin Beecher stays too tentative throughout as Andrew.

Meanwhile, Viola’s attraction to Orsino remains a matter of hypothesis more than demonstration all throughout. More disappointingly, while Viola disguises herself as a man to serve Cesario and woo Olivia in Shakespeare’s script, Laura Blake is never directed here to believably (or unbelievably) shift gender. Instead, she merely dons a hat. A false face carries the hazard of an unintended slip, a mask from which a character can occasionally peek out to confide in an audience. In this comparatively flat reading, it’s clear that Viola is never in any danger of being found out. It’s an interpretation that removes a substantial amount of dramatic and comedic possibility from the script, while undercutting Olivia’s attractions as well.

And while I normally support neutral casting, Frazier and Blake look nothing alike in terms of size, race, body type or gender. Next to no effort is expended here to ever make them so. As a result, up until the last act, prior knowledge of the play is required to intuit that everyone repeatedly mistakes one for the other.

These uneven acting and directing choices particularly stand out in the company of so many advanced ones in this show’s design and staging. But fundamental characters aren’t fully developed, in a production where almost everything else is: That’s the mixed review on this Twelfth Night. EndBlock