Posted by: strugglesome | July 21, 2011

Holding Out For A Hero: Shakespeare in Clark Park presents Much Ado About Nothing

Say what you will about Shakespeare, but at the very least, in his comedies he was excruciatingly honest. Instead of assigning lofty values and a higher purpose to his comedic works, he instead underestimates them, making them out to be little pieces of fluff rather than elevating them to the status of art. Just think about the titles, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, A Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, it’s like Renaissance Reality Television, packaged to be pleasing, guffaw inducing, and disposable. And that is, of course, part of its genius, because Shakespeare’s comedies say as much, if not more, about the human condition, as his tragedies, they just do it in a way that’s sublimely wry rather than affectingly dark. So we walk in thinking it’s just going to be Ye Old Bachelorette and instead we get a scathing and sweet examination of why people do what they do (and with whom they do it). And what play pokes more fun at humans, heartache, and haters-turned-lovers then the diminutively titled Much Ado About Nothing, now playing as this year’s offering from Shakespeare in Clark Park? After all, you’ve got couples, both of the dueling AND the star-crossed variety, a villain, a war (it is supposed to be happening during wartime, after all), a comedic policeman (as opposed to the kind that issues you a very expensive ticket just for breathing) and sex! Take that, The Biggest Loser.

Directed by Alex Torra, who makes beautiful use of the entirety of Clark Park in all it’s sprawling dusty glory, the production uses of the natural amphitheater created by a depression at the center of the park. Starting out with a USO style concert performed by the ladies of the piece, Beatrice (Victoria Frings), Hero (Marla Burkholder, who is also co-Artistic director of Shakespeare in Clark Park with production manager Maria Moller), Ursula (Jess Conda) and Margaret (Jenna Horton) and observed by Hero’s father Leonato (David Blatt) and uncle Antonio (Liam Castellan, who also plays a watchman and the sexton), all together presenting a pretty picture of life during wartime, with only the old and the female left behind to wait for the boys on the line. Of course, what line that is is a little confused by both Erica Hoelscher’s charming but jumbled costumes and Torra’s deliberately era defying  staging, which mixes 20’s style costume farce with 40’s style cinematography to create a piece that lives in a past both like and nothing like our own.  The 1940’s sound score, composed/adapted and musically directed by Andrew Nelson and engineered by Daniel Perelstein, does it’s best to drown out all the street sounds and transport us to the past, and if the mikes are a touch crackly, well, I blame the heat, honestly. The production feels like it’s playing with time and reference, dressing Burkholder in 50’s style prom dresses while Frings and the boys look like they’ve been plucked from a movie about the American occupation of Italy and Conda and Horton could be extras in The Help and setting it all down in a mix of chairs from all decades and small mobile platforms, benches, potted plants and one versatile trellis (set and lighting design by Stephen Hungerford).

And honestly, for a production played under the stars for a group of picnickers, children, homeless people and the occasional stray animal, the grab bag feeling is a big part of its appeal. The keyword here is play, this production is fun and energetic, well crafted, nicely if unsparingly cut to a zippy hour and a half, and above all playful. Subtlety doesn’t exactly read in a space where you have to compete with ice cream trucks, sirens, and the mildly insane.  So if you are telling a story in which there are plot twists, faked deaths, trials, parties and weddings,  you rather have to go big or go home. We want to feel like this group of actors happened upon a bag of costumes and decided to have a good time with this play, and this production gives us what we want, it includes us every step of the way and makes us feel like we are in on the joke, not left outside as rhyming couplets soar. It’s so easy to feel alienated by Shakespeare’s work in our modern context, and this production does what good Shakespearean comedy should do, it says, come in, sit down, pass the wine, and enjoy yourself.

So what is the story here, exactly? Picture Messina, a town in Sicily, during a war, which ever war you want. Into the sleepy Italian town comes the army, on leave, lead by Don Pedro (Langston Darby). Fring’s smartly saucy and gloriously physical Beatrice has a hate-love relationship with Radway’s sarcastic and beautifully timed Benedict, and both of them are so engaging and well thought out that when either of them is on stage they completely captivate the audience, and no amount of bicycling children or disorderly hobos can dislodge our attention. These battling beaus are flanked on each side by the sweeter and more simple (or are they?) Hero and Claudio, parts Burkholder and Jarboe dispatch energetically and nicely. As Hero and Claudio plan their nuptials they also scheme with Don Pedro, Leonato, and Hero’s ladies maids Ursula and Margaret to force the reluctant lovebirds into wedded bliss. And they would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for Scooby Doo-er,  Don John (Dan Higbee) whose bitterness at his wrong-side-of-the-blanket birth has corroded his identity to the point that he lives to destroy his brother, the princely Don Pedro. He does that by planting the seeds of doubt in the mind of the trusting Claudio and then reaping the fruit just before his wedding day, convincing one and all that Hero is, sin of sins, unchaste. And this is the moment that the play splits itself between lighthearted battle of the sexes and fairly disturbing social commentary, at least, in these modern times. Because Hero’s supposed deflowering is enough to have Claudio cast her aside during the wedding ceremony, brutally returning her to her loving father, who, in turn, threatens to murder her should her hymen be less than intact. Meanwhile the poor girl is left, unconscious with shock and grief, while all around her she is publicly shamed by the people she loves. Are we having fun yet?

The anxiety of virginity that haunts literature is no surprise, but it does come as rather a perturbing slap in the face when planted in the middle of such a nicely handled piece. There is nothing to be done about the plot of this play, it is that it is, to paraphrase Othello, but it is in deciding what to do with it that modern productions of Shakespeare can have some freedom. Torra surrounds the issue with beautifully wrought neatly physical comedy that reads well and makes the crowd go wild, but it’s still there, lurking below the surface. Only Frings, Radway and Blatt seem to actually feel the devastation of Don John and Claudio’s actions, and the aftermath with Benedict and Beatrice declaring their love for each other amid the crisis creates one of the most engaging and touching scenes of the play. So while we are relieved that the terminally incompetent proto-Mrs. Malaprop police chef Dogberry (an excellent Johnny Smith) and his constables Horton and David Sweeny (who also plays with the band, of course, and that includes the additional talents of Andy Bresnan and Paul Butler) catch the villainous Borachio (Nathan Holt, who also doubles as pseudo-buddhist catholic priest) and Conrad (Conda again), compatriots of Higbee’s cartoonist and voluminous Don John, it doesn’t really make up for Claudio’s actions, his doubts, his lack of faith in is so faithful beloved. Oh, well. All’s Well That Ends Well, right?

Shakespeare in Clark Park is playing from tonight, July 21st, 2011, until Sunday, July 24th, 2011, at 7pm, and tickets are free. I don’t know why you are still reading this, please go get a seat right now.

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