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BWW Review: TWELFTH NIGHT Shakes With Hilarity

One of the great things ~ and there's a goodly number ~ about Southwest Shakespeare Company is its fidelity to quality, innovative, and accessible interpretations of the Bard's work. At the apex of its 22nd Season, devoted thematically to the diverse passions that, in the words of Jared Sakren, the company's producing artistic director, may often create suffering and destruction, TWELFTH NIGHT turns the spotlight 180 degrees to "the delights and agonies of love and pride and the confusion they create."

And what a thoroughly delightful "confusion" director David Vining has cleverly concocted, aided and abetted by a prodigious cast, Kimb Williamson's idyllic Aegean blue set, and Adriana Diaz's classic and classy tunics and gowns.

Preceded by a medley of Greek songs, the theatre rumbles into Act I with the thunderous peals of a tempest, and the well-known story of mixed identities and twisted plots unfolds as a supremely joyful romp on the plaka of Illyria, circa 1870s.

In brief, here's a reminder of the convoluted setup: Viola (Allison Sell) is washed ashore. Once she has her bearings, she assumes the identity of a young man, Cesario, and enters the employ of the fair-haired and love-addled Duke Orsino (Jon L. Peacock), the island's governor, who yearns for the affections of the fair and virtuous maid Olivia (elegantly played by Emily Mohney), who stubbornly resists his appeals. Orsino assigns Cesario to steadfastly pursue on his behalf an audience with Olivia. When Olivia relents and meets Cesario, her heart follows, but not in the intended direction.

Allison Sell has proven, time after time, what an extraordinary actress she is and how skillfully she can embrace and enliven Shakespeare's characters. She has done it again in a marvelous turn as Viola/Cesario. Sell brilliantly captures ~ with nuanced and perfectly calibrated gestures, grimaces, and movements ~ the distinct emotions of her character: at one moment, the woeful but determined castaway; at another, the swaggering envoy; at another, the concealed woman with a growing affection for Orsino.

As the mix of loves triangulate, there's a parallel play of mischief afoot via the raucous and riotous antics of Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Beau Heckman), his associate Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Dickinson), the Fool (Jason Steffen), and Olivia's lady-in-waiting, Maria (Jamie Bauer), who scheme to bring Olivia's ever-stern steward, Malvolio (Clay Sanderson) down a notch or two. Each of this foursome play their parts to the hilt with stellar comic effect, but Dickinson will leave you in stitches as he stumbles and flusters through vain efforts to prove his manhood. Likewise, Sanderson is outstanding as he takes the bait on Belch's cruel plot.

As the play nears its denouement, Viola's brother Sebastian (Andy Cahoon) surfaces, and all but one loose thread are neatly tied together, the one thing that does not enjoy instant relief is the pain in one's chest from non-stop laughter.

This is a skillfully and smartly constructed and masterfully played production with scene pictures and performances that will linger well after the lights dim.

TWELFTH NIGHT, OR WHAT YOU WILL (and you will want to see it!) runs through April 9th at the Mesa Arts Center's Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse Theater.

Photo credit to Patrick Walsh

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