Monday, October 15, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group likes to do Shakespeare.  Sometimes straight.  Sometimes on some kind of probably illegal substance.  Much Ado About Nothing (running through December 2) emerges as the former.  One of the Bard's four big comedies (the others being As You Like It, Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew), this one was made into a very good film some years back starring then-married couple Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson.

Therein demonstrates a key to the play and making it work.  You need a good set to play the primary romantic leads.  Beatrice and Benedick are mismatched lovers, but with a refreshingly realistic (also hilarious) obstacle to their united bliss.

They hate each other.

Or, more accurately, they are each far too witty and too sure of themselves to let the other get away with anything.  Every conversation has become notorious among their many mutual friends for turning into fencing matches with their tongues.  And so their friends, led by Don Pedro (Gino Costabile), resolve to trick them into falling in love.  It works, amid some lovely set pieces involving overheard conversations and misunderstandings.  But if we don't believe these two as a couple, the whole thing collapses.

Fortunately, that proves no problem.  Jennifer Kenyon and Amir Khalighi capture these two with all the intelligence and foolishness, the passion and arrogance one could ask.  These two are precursors of Sam and Diane, Batman and Catwoman, Rhett and Scarlett--couples that go at each other tooth and claw, mostly because in the end how else does a strong person find a mate? They long for an equal.  So it becomes a matter of who survives the contest.  Beatrice and Benedick begin with sneers, contempt, public declarations of insult after insult.  Reminds one of kindergarden, really.  And they are in perfect counterpoint to the younger couple of the play--Claudio (Philip Rodriguez) and Hero (Stefanie Ogden), a pair of nice stupid kids whose angst-strewn drama touches on sex, politics, deceit, humiliation, the threat of death, etc.  Yet their story remains totally upstaged by Beatrice and Benedick.  Indeed, imagine for a moment the play without the two slightly older lovers and it seems so bland!  Despite all the props of drama!  Because the characters remain all important.  Their reactions to each other would eclipse a minor war.  At least that is how they're written.

Kenyon has in some ways the toughest scene, when she overhears a staged conversation about how Benedick loves her to the point of becoming sick.  Yet also, so they say, no one will tell her because they think so highly of him and will not subject their friend to the pain of her rejection.  She has little time and few lines to change her tune, declaring this love shall be requited.  But we won't accept it if we didn't sense something of that before hand.  Which we do!  Khalighi on the other hand gets more time to convince himself, which turns into quite the nice comic monologue.  In fact he gets several, plus the more dramatic scenes.  One really important moment in the play, which we must believe or it just doesn't work, comes a little over halfway.  Claudio, deceived as to his fiancee Hero's virtue, denounces her publicly in the Church where they are to be wed.  Beatrice demands Benedick, who has declared himself in love with her, kill his good friend Claudio.  When Benedick agrees, that's when the whole play deepens.  He loves her.  For real.  And will kill a man, a friend, on her say-so.  Nice?  No.  But real.  And passionate.  And a fine comparison to the young, pleasing, naive and jealous idiot Claudio whom we see early on jumps to easy conclusions.  Not so wise as Benedick.  Under the same circumstances, Benedick one feels would remain loyal.  Demand far more proof.  Instantly suspect the accuser.

One suspects this is a story of Romeo and Juliet if they each had an old and wiser sibling, who in turn also fell in love and managed to prevent the tragedy.

The overall production itself is remarkably fast and lean.  Every trace of fat has seen an editing pencil, while the tone ends up rather frenzied and veering towards comedia del arte.  But not quite there.  Never seen this play done quite such a manner, but the proof is in the pudding--I was both moved and I laughed.  Nor was I alone.  Some nuances got lost, even opportunities for humor amid the steady and quick pace.  But then, there's never a perfect production of any play.  Every one must make choices.  I'll admit a bit of opening night jitters showed up in the first few minutes but they evaporated before long so I suspect subsequent performances will get even better.

But one curious thing also popped up.  This play contains one of Shakespeare's very best Fools, not least because Dogberry doesn't actually have that job.  He is no jester, at least not knowingly.  He instead is an official, the equivalent of a small town sheriff.  But so full of himself, so charmingly lazy but good-hearted, so earnest in his duty while so ridiculous of pretension he makes for arguably the third most coveted part in the play.  Here lies the odd thing.  Nicholas Thurkettle who plays Dogberry, frankly hams it up.  Well, this part can work with that, but I didn't feel he quite hit all the marks.  Make no mistake, he was still funny and the laughs involving the character grew as he appeared on stage.  But at least at first he wasn't so much a character as a collection of quirks.  Yet the same actor played a second role, a small but pivotal role of Friar Francis who comes up with the scheme by which all is ultimately made well.  This is precisely the kind of part Shakespeare's plays abound with--small, important, all too often given to lesser members of the company.  Yet Thurkettle did this part splendidly!  He outlines a subtle plan onstage using the heightened language of the Bard, does so with skill and such simple honesty for a few moments he upstaged everyone!  Kudos to him!  Yet his Dogberry qualifies as almost a misfire.  Almost.  Not quite the correct note.  He was funny, but I didn't care about him.  I always cared about Dogberry before in some weird quirky way.  But--a good actor.  Demonstrably so.  And he accomplished the most important thing about Dogberry--made us laugh at the antics and speech of this odd, worthy Fool who ultimately saves the day.  So kudos again!

Much Ado About Nothing plays Sundays at 7pm October 14 through December 2, 2012 at 4850 Lankershem Blvd, North Hollywood (818) 202-4120.  Directed by Denise Devin (who also did the same company's very fine Hamlet earlier this year). All Photo Credit: Denise Devin & Zombie Joe

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