A Kind of Merry War
The Bard’s screwball comedy delivers a lot of something at Stolen Shakespeare Guild.
by M. Lance Lusk. Published Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s crowd-pleaser about love and frivolity, is one of the most performed plays in the canon. Its bite-sized length and lively subject matter go down as sweetly and insubstantially as a chocolate bonbon. It is probably no coincidence that Stolen Shakespeare Guild‘s production opened on Valentine’s weekend.
The main plot follows the romance of the young lovers, Claudio (Michael Kreitzinger) and Hero (Samantha Chancellor). The victorious soldier Claudio is celebrating with his comrades in Sicily and his thoughts soon turn to wooing the governor’s daughter Hero. The more entertaining and interesting subplot involves the “skirmish of wit” between Benedick (Brad Stephens) and Beatrice (Arlette Morgan). Benedick, the avowed bachelor, and Beatrice, the quick-witted and sharp-tongued governor’s niece, relish the good-natured bickering in which they constantly engage. Wackiness ensues when their friends conspire to make them believe they secretly love one another. Further action follows the machinations of an evil, bastard brother who tries to thwart the love between Claudio and Hero, plus some bumbling comedic riffs from the local constable and his men.
A delicate balance is required for this play to become more than just an airy, romantic farce. The darker edges of the storyline involving the malicious plotting and accusations of infidelity and jealousy have to be strongly pushed and fleshed out to make the redemptive conclusion of the play satisfying. Even Shakespeare felt the need to insert one of his requisite fake deaths to salt the overly sweet nature of the story. Unfortunately, most productions settle for making the play a pageant of harmless, amorous bantering wrapped up in the pretty bow of a modern rom-com’s sensibilities, all kiss and no bite.
Directors Jason and Lauren Morgan’s traditional, down-the-middle interpretation creates a lively romp that has many more hits than misses, the sluggish opening section and some weak characterizations being the only major obstacles.
Shakespeare could have named the play Beatrice and Benedick, because the many-splendored facets of the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice drive the play, essentially making or breaking its success. It is critical that their repartee be quick, clever and with a strong undercurrent of feeling, whether they are at odds, falling in love or protesting too much their mutual adoration. Actor Brad Stephens’ Benedick proves himself more than capable of playing the clever cad with understanding and energy. Shakespeare gives Benedick some of his best zingers, and Stephens delivers them all with twinkling aplomb.
The role of Beatrice is a much more difficult endeavor. She has to give as good as she gets back to Benedick, guard her fragile heart, convincingly fall in love with her “enemy” and provide the moral outrage at her cousin and her own gender done wrong. It is a precarious juggling act, and, alas, one that Arlette Morgan struggles with a bit. Morgan seems to put too much credence in Beatrice’s pronouncement that she speaks “all mirth and no matter.” The audience sees only Beatrice’s bitter, sarcastic façade, rarely her humanity, and, frankly, would have a difficult time believing that she could love Benedick and convince him to love her in return. The lack of sincerity in this performance even results in the audience’s responding with inappropriate laughter to Beatrice’s heart-wrenching request of Benedick to kill her cousin’s accuser.
The affably clueless constable Dogberry is Shakespeare’s comic relief par excellence in this play, a can’t-miss, gut-busting role for most audiences to enjoy. Robert Krecklow strangely plays him a bit too refined and mostly sedate in the beginning, but he saves his best chops for his last scenes. Tarun Kapoor’s Don John is aptly menacing and haughty. Kreitzinger as Claudio portrays the wide-eyed lover with a range of impressive emotion and comedic instinct. A special kudos for Allen Walker’s portrayal as the doting father governor, Leonato. Walker infuses this supporting role with sincere geniality and deep pathos.
The look of the production and Lauren Morgan’s costumes evoke a pleasant, sun-kissed Renaissance Italy with stucco villas, shuttered windows and a bucolic farm cart. The uncluttered simplicity of the set and its design work quite well here, never detracting from the action or language of the play. Christine Hand Jones’ live, original music and subsequent musical performance in the role of Balthasar is poignant, appropriate and worthy of note.
The directors’ interpretation is a simple and conventional one, which is refreshing and appreciated at a time when too many directors constantly try to jazz up Shakespeare with offbeat settings, outlandish costumes and contemporary music. The beginning of the play does have some issues with slow timing, where a fury of words is required to set the pace. A rapid-fire pace is vital in screwball comedy, especially one involving a war between the sexes. The proper stride is found when the matchmaking between Beatrice and Benedick commences, and continues nicely for the remainder of the show.
Much Ado About Nothing represents Shakespeare’s last purely “witty” play, before he moved on to much darker, colder fare such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and the like. Stolen Shakespeare Guild allows the audience to experience the wit and wonder of this play, while transporting them to the sunnier climes of Sicily for a few hours.
Tickets on sale now through Theatre Mania (866-811-4111), by going to the Stolen Shakespeare Guild website or at the Box Office starting one hour before any performance.