Last night, under an overcast sky, crisp characterizations by some of the lead actors could not save Raleigh Little Theatre’s up-and-down presentation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which will conclude its run May 12 and 13 in RLT’s Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre. In Shakespeare, diction is the thing — and where most community-theater productions of the Immortal Bard stumble. In Shakespeare under the stars, whether or not rain clouds threaten to burst overhead is an important factor, but secondary to the proper functioning of body mics.

The diction in RLT’s rendition of Twelfth Night, under the direction of Actors Comedy Lab co-founder Rod Rich, seems to deteriorate that farther down the list of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae you travel. And the feedback from body mics was a persistent problem for a good part of Act I and occasionally in Act II.

Tracey Phillips was charming as plucky Viola, who barely survived a shipwreck that she thinks drowned her twin brother Sebastian (Khoa Pham). Boldly adopting the man’s name of Cesario, Viola puts on manly attire to survive — without a protector — at the court of the hopelessly lovelorn Duke Orsino (Timothy Riordan) of Illyria. When the duke sends the newcomer Cesario to deliver his latest romantic overture to the disdainful Lady Olivia (Jenny Anglum), the lady unexpectedly falls in love with the handsome youth and bids Viola/Sebastian to return to discuss the duke’s suit further. When his lines do not fall victim to feedback, Timothy Riordan makes a noble duke; and Jenny Anglum and Nicolé Mazon are good as the beautiful Olivia and her mischievous maid Maria, who plays a very dirty trick on Olivia’s insufferably self-centered steward Malvolio (Scott Nagel).

Nagel is terrific as the officious and haughty major domo tricked by a forged love letter—ostensibly from his mistress — and brought low by his employer’s maid, her drunken kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Tim Toney), Toby’s well-to-do but clueless drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Joe Hyde), and Olivia’s impertinent clown Feste (Curt Kirkhoff). Tim Toney, who growls his lines so badly that they are scarcely audible, muffed more than a few Sir Toby’s caustic comments last night; and Curt Kirkhoff also had some problems making himself understood. Moreover, his characterization of Feste seems a little too acid.

Joe Hyde, who merely had to cut the fool, gallop off stage, and giggle like an idiot on cue, fared better. Del Flack (Curio/Priest/Officer), Chuck Keith (Valentine/Officer), Timothy Corbett (Captain/Antonio), Khoa Pham (Sebastian), and Matt Schedler (Fabian) also had problems making themselves understood.

Director Rod Rich took a fresh new approach to Twelfth Night, setting the show just after the First World War; and set designer Rick Young, technical director and lighting designer Roger Bridges, and costume designer Robin Cuevas did a fine job of transposing this Elizabethan comedy to Italy, circa 1919. Indeed, Cuevas’ costumes were spectacular.

Unfortunately, sound designer Becca Easley struggled for much of the evening and the new original score written Harrison Fisher for this production was occasionally a victim of the technical difficulties. But those electronic glitches are nothing comparable to the miscues of some of the cast members.

Raleigh Little Theatre will present Twelfth Night Friday-Saturday, May 12-13, at 8 p.m. in RLT’s Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($12 students and seniors). 919/821-3111 or etix via the presenter’s site. Note: All performances are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all shows. Raleigh Little Theatre: [inactive 7/06]. Shakespeare Resources (University of Virginia): [inactive 3/10]. Twelfth Night: (1623 First Folio) and (1866 Globe Edition).