Anything but simple, Arvada Center’s ‘Twelfth Night’ is an easy crowd pleaser

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The struggle between revelry and reason can leave some pretty ugly casualties.

For a comedy, William Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” poses a number of fairly serious questions about excess, just as it leaves a few unsettling issues by the close of its final scene. Penned sometime in the late 16th or early 17th century, the piece stands apart from more straightforward comedies like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” or “A Comedy of Errors.” While many of the standard Elizabethan comedic structures come into play (a pair of separated twins, a long list of romantic confusions, the complex fallout from disguises and mistaken identity), the piece offers somber undertones and deeper questions about indulgence and virtue.

That basic tension finds a central place in the production of “Twelfth Night or What You Will” currently running at the Arvada Center’s Black Box theater, a first-of-its-kind co-production with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Director Philip Sneed and a stellar cast find dynamic and compelling ways to neatly balance the deeper, philosophic issues of the piece with its more whimsical and romantic elements. Even as the characters fall in love, don disguises and reunite with long-lost family members, they also present weighty questions about excess and temperance, celebration and refrain.

While physical pratfalls and Shakespearean wordplay form a big part of the humor, this production’s most notable impact comes in its subtle touches. Sneed gives the action a contemporary feel and a sometimes bawdy flavor, all while remaining faithful to the multi-faceted brilliance of the text. A female character is disguised as a man and is secretly in love with a Duke; a countess falls for the twin brother of the woman disguised as a man. Such roundabout plot twists offer chances to explore the deeper romantic and sexual meaning of the text.

Following an old dramatic tradition, this production switches the order of the first two scenes of the comedy, starting on the windswept shores of Illyria (present-day Albania) and a shipwreck. Viola (Kate Berry) has survived the wreck and, believing her twin brother Antonio (Josh Robinson) to be dead, she heads to the nearby court of the duke Orsino (Geoffrey Kent) to serve as his young page. Here’s the twist: Viola decides to disguise herself as a man, taking on the name of Cesario and aiding the Duke in his desperate courting of the countess Olivia (Rachel Fowler).

At Olivia’s court, a subplot involving her head steward Malvolio (Timothy McCracken), her uncle Sir Toby Belch (Logan Ernstthal), his companion Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Ian Anderson) her gentlewoman-in-waiting Maria (Leslie O’Carroll) and her servant Fabian (Jamie Ann Romero), raises some of the show’s deeper questions. Malvolio becomes the target of an elaborate prank cooked up by Belch, Maria, Aguecheek and Fabian. The comic subplot pits Malvolio – who personifies staid dignity and reason – against a group in love with drink, music and abandon. The game becomes cruel – a resolution that sees almost every couple happily paired off in proper Shakespearean tradition leaves Malvolio abused and bitter. Feste, Olivia’s jester played by Jake Walker, plays the standard role of a Shakespearean fool, telling the truth where no one else can through music and wit.

The staging doesn’t shy away from the comedy’s more uncomfortable elements and conflicts. While Ernstthal, Anderson, O’Carroll and Romero deliver brilliant moments of physical comedy and wordplay, McCracken’s intensity as Malvolio gives the troupe’s pranks a heavier dimension. Similarly, the main romance involving Viola, Orsino and Olivia takes on urgency with the cast’s heartfelt performance. Kent’s Orsino is emotionally earnest and complex and Berry’s Viola suffers under the weight of a dual identity.

“Twelfth Night” is a complex comedy that demands more than simple pratfalls and deft delivery. The collaboration between the Arvada Center and the Colorado Shakespeare Festival finds those deeper issues behind Shakespeare’s standard devices and brings them to the fore.

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707

“Twelfth Night”

May 1 to May 27 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada

Tickets start at $25

3 and a half out of 4 stars

Information: 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org