As with many a fairy tale, the bare facts of Beauty and the Beast make for an unassuming story. Disney, perhaps its least curious interpreter, did little to intensify the complexities and contradictions in this business of being human.

But people can rarely be explained away as pure evil- or good-doers, and the Arden Theatre's current production of Beauty and the Beast reminds its audience that the time to make up your mind about people is never (and that goes double for beasts). Cassandra, after all, is the vain, grabby sister, with an inner selflessness that just can't help itself. The father is a poor man with a lust for money - but one born of a desire to become a good provider.

No cartoon cutouts, these virtuous and flawed agents of desire are costumed in shades as ambiguous as their character. Only the steely housekeeper, played by E. Ashley Izard with an edge that could have sliced Mrs. Danvers cold, emerges as unalloyed evil. With writer Charles Way's fine ear for language and director Whit MacLaughlin's eye for emotional potential, the Arden once again announces itself as the local spot for smart children's theater. Are children really attuned to the sparks of Jane Austen-esque social dynamics? If you doubt it, you haven't been hanging out with 5- and 6-year-olds today.

But the Arden's Beauty and the Beast, slated to run through Feb. 1, also doesn't stint on the kind of visuals grown-ups always feel children need. Shadow-casting props lie about - they were designed by Sebastienne Mundheim - granting the audience a view to the inner gears of the show. Up on a white curtain hung in a circle, shadows of storm-tossed ships and forbidding castle gates grow and wither.

Timed to trenchant sound design by Rob Kaplowitz and loose strands of music, there was a visceral thrill and menace at a Tuesday morning show that had been toned down a bit since previews. Lauren Hooper made a fine Cassandra, as did Kevin Meehan as her wooing Daniel Knightly, and as Belle, Emilie Krause found her delicate strength as equal parts mystic and conscience.

Brian Anthony Wilson, father to Belle and Cassandra, was the largest presence on stage vocally and physically, and you might have made the case for him cast as the beast. The beast casts a big scary shadow, but turns out to be of small frame and, of course, kind heart, a quality that Matteo Scammell paced to shine through the brutish exterior in ever-widening peeks as love sets in. Tall shadows can't stand up under the bright lights of humanity. Isn't that usually the case with our worst fears?


Beauty and the Beast

Through Feb. 1 at Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St.

Tickets: $20-$36


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