|Claudio (L) and Beatrice (R), played by Levi Ruiz and Taylor JeanPhotography credit: Garry Bastian of Garry Bastian Photography|
By Tina Arth
People who doubt that Shakespeare’s plays are best seen on stage rather than read in an English Lit class should hop on their broncos and gallop, not trot, to Twilight Theater Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. As with many productions of the play, Director Sue Harris has updated the locale (and dialect, but not dialogue) to a more modern setting – in this case, a thoroughly implausible version of the wild, wild West. The result is a funny, amazingly accessible show that should appeal to Shakespeare aficionados as well as the Bard-aversive.
Twilight’s theater is perfect for this kind of show – intimate enough for the audience to see and hear every gesture, grimace, nuance, and aside. There is no danger that we will miss the obvious lurkers and eavesdroppers hunkered down behind curtains, plants or benches – and it is the broad dumb show as much as the actual dialogue that moves the play along and conveys character.
The story is fundamentally simple, but occasionally wanders (as Shakespeare’s tales often do) into convoluted side-plots. Confirmed playboy Benedick and sharp-tongued spinster Beatrice despise each other in a way that cries out for romantic matchmaking – with that many sparks, who could resist lighting a fire? More merry matchmaking is afoot when the noble Don Pedro decides to help his friend, shy Claudio, woo the lovely and virtuous Hero. Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John, resolves to muck up Claudio and Hero’s wedding; he tricks Claudio in believing that Hero has been unfaithful, throwing the nuptials into disarray. When Don John’s dastardly plot is discovered, the good guys (at this point, Beatrice and Benedick, Hero’s dad Leonato, and others) devise their own scheme, and of course all’s well that ends well (Hey! That would make a great title!) by the end of Act III.
In the generally strong ensemble, there are a few real standouts. On the comic side, Aaron Morrow (“Leonato”) fearlessly and shamelessly lets it all hang out as he sprawls, falls, and crawls – especially when he is wearing the tasteless and absurd disguise of the masked ball. Alicia Hueni (“Hero”) injects a dose of serious drama with her believable despair at being falsely accused. Levi Ruiz (“Claudio”) is always likeable as he moves from bumbling sidekick to righteously aggrieved suitor, and Mark Putnam is consistently contemptible as the scheming “Don John.” The most fun, however, comes from watching the verbal sparring between Benedick (J. J. Harris) and Beatrice (Taylor Jean Grady). His ineffectual swagger and her constantly caustic remarks are the show’s real masks, thinly disguising an affection that can only end in true love.
The costumes are fun, but all over the map, so the Western theme plays out most strongly in the actors’ Texas drawl (which allows for slow, powerful emphasis of the funniest lines) and the music, a well-chosen series of popular country songs from recent decades. The single set eliminates the need for time-consuming scene changes – very important in a show with three acts and two intermissions! The almost non-stop comedy ensures that the show never drags and the audience is constantly engaged – no mean feat for a three-hour show.
Twilight Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Saturday, February 27th with performances at 8 P.M. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3 P.M.