You know something? Shakespeare is funny.
This production is a delight, and I am going to recommend it – wait for it- most especially for people who hate Shakespeare. The more you hate hate Shakespeare, the more you’ll be surprised by the knockdown dragout good time you’ll have in this rendition of Much Ado About Nothing at Chesapeake Shakespeare.
But before we get to that, let’s talk about the theater itself:
Chesapeake Shakespeare’s new home at Calvert Street in Baltimore opened last year, after years of effort by the company to find a place to hang their hats. As elegant as a palace, as relaxing and comfortable as an Eames lounge chair, (I have never sat on more comfy theatre seats), it is one of the most well designed theatre spaces that you will find in this area.
The basic design of thrust stage, surrounded on three sides by seating, is a modern reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s The Globe Theatre, but this is no dusty museum replica. It’s just so… I don’t know… modern and fun and so very well thought out. Look up, and you see a glorious turn of the century Baltimore plaster ceiling festooned with rosettes and gilt and coffered recesses. Sit down, and instead of too-narrow theatre seats, there are beautifully upholstered benches, deep, slightly slanted, and ergonomic- you can really spread out on those things. Boy, does that add to the enjoyment of a show when your back doesn’t hurt.
There are two bars, and they are real bars with booze and snacks, and yes indeedy, happy hooray, they are open all during the show. The audience is encouraged to mill about on sofas and tall wing chairs that are scattered throughout the theater- and you can take your drinks with you to your seat, a great concept more and more theaters are embracing. If you want to get up from your bench, grab a beer and stretch your legs during the show, the unwritten invitation is ‘Go ahead- be comfortable’. House lights remain dim but not down, for often the action of the play will occur in the audience as well. It’s a refreshing way to watch the show, while at the same time mirroring how mobile the original Elizabethan audiences were.
So now let’s talk about the show:
For those unfamiliar with the story, Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy, centered around two people who love each other but who are too darned stubborn to admit it, even to themselves. Their families conspire to make the match, and hilarity, of course, ensues. There are bumbling police, badguy intrigues, songs, mistaken identities, tragic events, and friendships and romances sundered. But have no fear, all is happily resolved- it’s a comedy, after all. Best of all, for all you Shakespeare haters out there? No one ends up in a pool of blood as in so many of Shakespeare’s other plays.
This is a particularly good choice while the Women’s Voices Festival is in our area – the character of Beatrice has long been acclaimed as one of Shakespeare’s finest female heroines: strong, opinionated, and a feminist before the word was coined.
The company does it justice, and then some. Directed by Matthew R. Wilson, whom many of you know as the founder of the commedia del’Arte company Faction of Fools, the whole thing unfolds like a Keystone Cops flicker – zippy timing, laughs in every frame, and most of all, visual punches where none are even written in the script. Benedick, our hero, has a bit with a door that made the audience scream with laughter. It’s awfully clever, and an unexpected use of a simple door. You can tell this director walked the stage to find out how to use each inch of it, rather than directing from his chair. Those who take the time to search for gold often find it.
The cast is strong, with most ensemble members taking several roles; lots of folks get to shine for a moment, which has several good musical numbers woven into the scenes.
As Benedick, Lord of Padua, Ron Heneghan plays a confirmed bachelor who struggles against love and wins by losing the battle. His timing is impeccable, and he’s the most watchable person on stage even when in a crowd. And in comedy parlance, this actor kills. Kiiillls. His beloved is an equal match. Blythe Coons is an acid tongued Beatrice who is reduced to hiding under flower urns near the end: she too is conquered, and the play between these two actors, adept at saying one thing and meaning another, is a joy to watch.
Of note, too, is Gerrad Alex Taylor as Claudio, Benedick’s fellow soldier at arms. He veers from deepest love to outright hate; and in an early scene, where he professes his love for Hero in front of Benedick, the boys’ school ribbing he receives is priceless.
Costumes are late Downton Abbey era, with a twenties flair and impeccable craftsmanship by resident designer Kristina Lambdin. Though one would think that the thrust stage wouldn’t offer much by way of design opportunities, scenic designer Kathryn Kawecki surprises us by sliding library shelves and bedroom walls out of columns- and don’t think we didn’t notice little touches like that teddy bear sitting on Beatrice’s shelf. It’s an indication of the detail apparent in the whole show. Of particular note is the fine lighting design by Daniel O’Brien, who used light in lieu of walls in the famous garden scene. It’s hilarious.
So, all you Shakespeare haters? You really have no excuse: unless you hate to laugh, you’ll have a good time, I guarantee it- you might even forget it’s Shakespeare you’re watching.
And for those of you who want the actors doing Shakespeare in that pool of blood? Not to worry. Chesapeake’s next show is Titus Andronicus.