Monday, April 01, 2013
A wonderfully delightful MUCH ADO at Great Lakes Theater
Boy hates girl. Girl hates boy. Boy overhears that girl is secretly in love with boy; girl hears vice versa. Other boy and girl love each other, but something gets in the way of their happiness. That's the basic premise of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theatre. Throw in a couple of interesting subplots, including an idiotic sheriff, a phony death, an irrational lover (is there any other kind?), and a vengeful half-brother, and you have the makings of one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies. In fact, the fifth best of all of the Bard’s plays, according to a renowned Shakespeare expert.
MUCH ADO, first published in 1600, was first performed during the winter of 1612-13 during the festivities preceding the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick Palatine. It proved to be a sublime battle of wit and will, much like the Bard’s other superb comedy, TAMING OF THE SHREW.
What makes the script very welcoming to North American audiences is that the majority of the text is written in prose, rather than in traditional Shakespeare rhyme. This allows for an ease in understanding the language. GLT’s production goes one step further and uses basic Midwestern pronunciation, to further aid.
The story, which Shakespeare set in the sixteenth century in Messina, Sicily, concerns two parallel love stories. One, between Beatrice, she of quick mind and sharp tongue and her love/hate relationship with Benedick, who also verbally thrusts and parries with Beatrice. Their match makes for one of the comic tracks of the script.
Then there is the match between handsome Claudio and the beautiful Hero, who fall in love and are to get married. Unfortunately for the duo, the villainous Don John slanders Hero with a false tale of sexual infidelity. The planned wedding turns out to be a shameful disaster when the prospective groom reveals his repulsion for his bride-to-be’s lack of chastity.
A fake death, uncovering of the nefarious plot against Hero by a quartet of bumbling police, Beatrice and Benedick overcoming their need for being the winner in their battle of wits, and a happy-ever-after ending, brings the play to a happy conclusion.
In this script, Shakespeare’s attitudes toward courtship, romance, social realities, marrying for social betterment to ensure inheritance, and female chastity, all roll out.
What makes MUCH ADO intriguing is that it combines many of Shakespeare’s best writing styles…farce, comedy and drama. This is also what makes the play so difficult to produce. Few directors and casts can pull off all of the various performance levels. Fortunately for area audiences, director Sharon Ott has razor sharp control of all the elements, and her cast and production crew are up to their end of the task. She nicely transforms the plot into the 1920s. This image is aided by Esther Haberlen’s period-correct costumes, Hugh Landwehr’s fragmented artistic scenery and designs, and Rick Martin’s lighting.
Ott has clearly separated the dramatic reality, the comic elements and the over-the-top farce…a hard thing to do. Her cast understands the differences and paces, pauses and stresses to create the right effects.
The staging is aided by the creative choreography of Martin Céspedes. He uses Charleston dance moves of the ‘20s, combined with some hints of Shakespearean attitudes. Even the scene changes and exits and entrances have choreographic images. The classically trained actors look at ease doing dance steps, which, for most of them, may be a performance stretch.
Cassandra Bissell is spot on as the sarcastic Beatrice. She is balanced by J. Todd Adams (Benedick), who matches her barb for barb, in spite of a distracting fake beard. Their interactions are like watching well choreographed verbal sword fights.
Betsy Mugavero is charming as lovely Hero. Neil Brookshire nicely balances both the love-struck and dramatic scenes with fidelity.
David Anthony Smith well portrays Don Pedro, while Juan Rivera Lebron is evil incarnate as Don John, the villain of the story. He was so convincing that on opening night, he received boos from the audience during the curtain call.
Laurie Birmingham was her usual delightful self as Antonia, Hero’s mother. David McCann was her equal as her husband.
Dougfred Miller as the bumbling constable, and M. A. Taylor as his sidekick, Verges, nearly stole the show with their keystone cops personas. The duo was so over the top realistic that they achieved farce at its highest level, having us laugh with, rather than at, a difficult task indeed.
Capsule judgement: GLT’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, under the creative and disciplined direction of Sharon Ott, and choreography by Martin Céspedes, is Shakespearean comedy at its highest level. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!