Theater: Slap-Happy

‘Much Ado About Nothing’ a colorful comedy

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Marin Shakespeare Company opens its 28th season with ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ one of the Bard’s most popular comedies. Photo by Jay Yamada.

By Charles Brousse

Hee haw! Pass the moonshine!

Each weekend through July 23, Marin Shakespeare Company (MSC) is transporting audiences on a journey to small-town Appalachia for a two-hour romp through one of the Bard’s most popular comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. It’s Shakespeare, country style—a bowl of grits seasoned with lumps of corny, thigh-slapping humor and toe-tapping musical interludes. Unless you’re a literary purist or genetically averse to an evening of wonderful theatrical entertainment performed “under the stars” in the company’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, you won’t want to miss it. Such opportunities don’t come around every day.

In their unceasing quest to find ways of freshening 16th century plays for audiences that may have become jaded by too many repetitions of the inner circle of favorites, producers have often turned to “concepts” that alter their setting and time frame, while retaining as much as possible of the original dialogue. Sadly, of the many I’ve attended, few have been successful. The Wild West Taming of the Shrew that was developed in the late 1960s at the College of Marin (COM) drama department is an exception, and now comes a similarly themed Much Ado.

Both broad comedies were originally set in southern Europe (Italy and Sicily, respectively) during the Renaissance. The colorful characters who inhabit them are timeless archetypes whose absurd antics are easily transposed across the centuries. For MSC adapter/director Robert Currier in Much Ado, it is mythical Appalachia (Pikeville, Kentucky, to be precise), home to the feuding Hatfield and McCoy clans. Currier is also helped by the fact that, as the title suggests, Shakespeare didn’t intend his comedy to be more than an entertainment. Unlike the dramas and history plays, there are no power struggles or moral dilemmas to resolve.

Currier has assembled an excellent cast to bring his vision to life. Much of the pre-opening buzz was around his casting of Dameion Brown, a “graduate” of MSC’s theater program at Solano State Prison, in the key role of Benedick. He’s the confirmed bachelor whose prickly relationship with the equally stubborn Beatrice forms Much Ado’s core. Brown excelled as the Moor in last season’s Othello, but people wondered whether someone with so little training and experience would know what to do with comedy. Within five minutes of his appearance on stage, all doubts vanished. Brown is a natural, pure and simple. I doubt that anything—comedy, drama or farce—lies beyond his range.

Elena Wright’s Beatrice is a worthy competitor as she and Brown jockey for position in what turns out to be an unusual courtship dance. Steely when it counts, meltingly romantic when events finally topple her resistance, Wright makes the transitions without skipping a beat.  

A subplot involves the on-again, off-again relationship between Hero (Nicole Apostol Bruno), daughter of Leonato (Steve Price), a wealthy property owner, and her suitor Claudio (Joshua Hollister), who has just returned from one of the frequent clan skirmishes. Both actors give it their all, but their underwritten story—which begins on a strong note—gradually fades in the shadow cast by Beatrice and Benedick until it is resurrected in the play’s final minutes.

Space limitations prevent consideration of everyone’s work, except to say that there isn’t a weak link among them. Likewise, I can only note the impact of Billie Cox’s country-western songs, especially the lament hauntingly sung by Claudio as he realizes that the serious error he has made may cost him his chance to win Hero’s affection. Jackson Currier’s rustic set and Abra Berman’s spot-on costumes greatly enhance the atmosphere.

All in all, it’s a fine evening of outdoor summer theater. One can almost taste that flavorful Kentucky moonshine!

NOW PLAYING: Much Ado About Nothing runs through July 23 in Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Ave., San Rafael; 415/499-4488; marinshakespeare.org.

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