Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Devil's Bride (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Let me say right now I went into seeing The Devil's Bride at Theatre Unleashed utterly in love with the concept.  Essentially this is a sequel to William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.  At the end of that comedy, the villain of the piece--the bastard Don John--has been captured and the too-clever-for-his-own-good hero Benedick is given the power to decide his punishment.  This play is all about that punishment.  In effect it is sequel.

The result proved quite lovely!

Don John (Michael Cortez) we meet in a dungeon, under the auspices of Dogberry (Richard Abraham) and Verges (Cyanne McClairian), two of the funniest Shakespearean characters this side of Midsummer Night's Dream.  Soon enough Benedick (Jim Martyka) arrives to order his relief under specific conditions--the bastard prince is to forfeit all lands, treasure and titles unless he can persuade Benedick's sister Allegra (Sammi Lappin) to marry him.

Understandably, pretty much everyone in the play who hears about this does a double take.  What on Earth is Benedick up to?  He explains all to his new wife/once and future antagonist Beatrice (Jenn Scuderi Crafts), even as Allegra herself arrives in Messina from Padua. Generations ago, a gypsy curse decreed any girl child born of their family would see all those who agreed to marry them die before their wedding day.  Allegra, the first such child in generations, took the legend as exactly that--until she was betrothed three times in a row to men who died before the wedding.  She has resolved to enter a convent.  Benedick believes Don John might break her resolve and in the process she will temper his dark impulses.  And as a royal prince with a substantial fortune she "could do worse."

When alone on stage, Allegra reveals this is not at all to her liking. She had dreamt of love, of marriage and children.  But even though she liked none of her late fiancees, neither did she want any of them dead!  The same is true of Don John!

Naturally enough, Don John's rather dark turn of mind makes him presume that any woman so offered to him will either prove a "whore or a harpy."  Which makes good sense, as far as it goes. One of the best moments in the whole play, which you can almost see coming, happens when the two finally do meet.  And yes, sparks fly.  Allegra, wanting love so much and having renounced it for the most honorable motives, quickly finds her resolve challenged.  John, a man bitter with the hatred hurled at him for being born out of wedlock (some openly insist he cannot possess a soul for just that reason), finds Allegra a young woman captivating almost beyond words.  A meaty seed of a story!

But totally worthless unless the cast is equal to it.

Fortunately, all the leads in this play are well up to the challenge, up to an including Duke Leonato (Steve Peterson).  All throughout what might easily have been nothing more than an intellectual exercise for Shakespeare geeks (like myself) rises to an actual drama.  I will frankly say Lappin and Cortez steal the entire show, as it should be since they are the title characters and the pole around which everything turns. Lappin has turned in many a fine comedic performance before now, and I'm thrilled to see her (as I have longed for) do drama.  The genuine torment of her Allegra proved fascinating to watch, as was Cortez's turn as a would-be villain who in fact turns out to be rather un-villainous at second or third or fourth glance.  That he remains tormented by his late first wife Marisol (Molly Moran), so much so she appears to taunt him, could be cloying but remains instead a window into his man's soul.

Having said all this praise, I'll admit the secondary characters aren't really as well-served by Joan Silsby's the script as we might like, such as Conrade (Lee Pollero), Don Pedro (Matthew Martin), Margaret (Isabelle Gonlund) or Borachio (Carey Matthews). But then, we're comparing this to a play by Shakespeare after all!  That said, I found myself a bit sorry the heightened language gradually seemed to vanish altogether by the second half of Act Two.  Frankly, I will also say the sword fight needs lots more practice to achieve the kind of speed which makes a sword fight exciting!

Yet, those are quibbles. The Devil's Bride not only lived up overall to my hopes, but gave me lots of lovely surprises as well as compelling performances full of those contradictory impulses that make characters human.  I want to see this show again.

The Devil's Bride plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm until May 21, 2016 with special Monday shows May 2 and 9 also at 8pm, upstairs at the Belfry Stage 11031 Camarillo Street, North Hollywood CA 91602

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