Tuesday, April 19, 2011

ASF: "Much Ado About Nothing"

What a pleasure to once again attend a Friday night opening at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. It is more of an occasion, and a pleasant way to end the day. Would there were more of these night-time openings, especially with high quality productions like Dianna Van Fossen's bright, funny, and intelligent rendering of Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. -- She invites her audiences into an exotic world: India in the 1930s, near the end of the British "Raj".

Costume designer Brenda Van der Weil's period British military uniforms and tailored frocks, along with Indian saris & turbans [and the clowns in an outrageous admixture of "guru", boy scout, organgrinder monkey, and an outrageously overdone red-jacketed guard uniform], and Peter Hicks's evocative and elegant set provide this world for Shakespeare's play.

In Much Ado, Shakespeare created some extraordinarily witty and comical lovers in Beatrice & Benedick -- constantly arguing with one another in games of one-upmanship, neither ready to admit love for the other, though everyone else knows it to be so -- and it could be the world today with wars and personal intrigues everywhere, concern for multiculturalism as the world is gradually changing, so many people quick to judge others on flimsy evidence or worse -- causing untold damage by constantly repeating lies with an authoritative voice, making these lies the only "truth" they know.

The Prince, Don Pedro [Thom Rivera] takes up residence in the home of Governor Leonato [Stephen Paul Johnson] on his return from a successful military campaign; in his retinue are the aforementioned Benedick [Peter Simon Hilton] and the younger Claudio [Erik Gullberg] who falls in love with Leonato's daughter Hero [Catlin McGee] and proposes marriage. Pedro's bastard brother Don John [Phillip Christian] schemes against both the marriage and his half-brother, enlisting Borachio [Brik Berkes] and Conrad [Seth D. Rabinowitz] to trick Claudio into believing that Hero is unfaithful.

Before their plot can be put into action, Beatrice [Jenny Mercein] and Benedick -- both adamant in their refusal to capitulate to love, and Benedick vowing to be an eternal bachelor -- engage in some of Shakespeare's wittiest repartee about the nature of love and marriage, which Ms. Mercein and Mr. Hilton produce with seeming ease and vitality of character that we instantly like them and want them to be together. Despite their denials, their friends determine to have each one "overhear" reports that each passionately loves the other; and what comic results there are of this trickery, with each now believing the other is in love.

When Claudio denounces Hero at the altar due to Don John's plotting, she swoons and is later reported as dead, and Leonato and his brother Antonio [Rodney Clark almost steals the show with his slow but certain comic descent into drunkenness] demand repentance of Claudio for defaming Hero. And Beatrice demands that Benedick get revenge.

In a most clever turn, Shakespeare creates a loveable clown in Dogberry [Eric Hoffman is brilliant in the role], the local constable who unintentionally misuses words so terribly and is a contrast to the glittering language used by Benedick & Beatrice. -- Additionally, it is he and his cohorts who by sheer accident capture the evildoers and bring them to justice.

All will end happily -- it is, after all, a comedy -- with music and dancing after the assorted lovers are convincingly reunited and Benedick renounces bachelorhood when Beatrice says she will have him. Ms. Van Fossen ends with a "Bollywood" dance that sends us all away feeling happy.