The full cast. Photo by r.r. jones
By Philip Pearce
SANTA CRUZ SHAKESPEARE has just launched its second season with a lively production of Much Ado About Nothing on the UCSC campus.
It’s a play that has had a lot of exposure in recent years. A lush and lavish Ashland Much Ado is running concurrently with this one, and Joss Whedon’s slick 2013 modern LA movie version is still fresh in memory, not to mention Kenneth Branagh’s glitzy late twentieth century screen rendition. In some ways, all that recent popularity is surprising, because it’s not really an easy piece of comedy. There is nothing like the ensemble of memorable and funny supporting characters you encounter in Twelfth Night, As You Like It, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Its working class clowns have always struck me as particularly tiresome. Much that happens calls for some long stretches of suspended disbelief, especially, as in this version, if it’s all updated to World War 2 Europe. And the villain of the piece is a pretty bland and unmotivated kind of baddy to stir up so much cloudy melodrama in the last half of the play.
What audiences always love and what was applauded like a hit number at a rock concert on opening night in Sinsheimer-Stanley Glen is the battle of wits and change of hearts between those sublime lead lovers Beatrice and Benedick. In Mike Ryan and Greta Wohrabe Santa Cruz Shakespeare has a wonderful pair of actors to carry two roles that fully justify all the surrounding ado. Wohrabe’s Beatrice starts out a wise-cracking blend of Rosalind Russell and Ethel Merman and mellows artfully as she is gradually conned into love and marriage with Benedick. She has a skill in pointing a comic line that’s only matched by Ryan’s strutting and explosive Benedick. His heartfelt cry, “No, but the world must be peopled!” deserved the big hand it received from a delighted first night audience. The couple give the production a bite and clarity that pervades the whole evening.
The problem with the play is its second love story. With some comic relief from Beatrice and Benedick, everything changes abruptly at halftime from effervescent farce to heavy-breathing melodrama. The real victim of all the dark chicanery, in what is surely the play’s most thankless and challenging role, is Benedick’s lovesick friend Claudio. Gormless even in early moments of the action, Claudio unaccountably agrees to allow the local Italian Prince Don Pedro (a suave and resourceful Kipp Moorman) to put on a mask and impersonate him in wooing the shy and lovely Hero (a charming and sprightly Sarah Taisman) on his behalf. That curious courtship settled, the accommodating Claudio then swallows some spurious evidence cooked up by the masked wooer’s wicked half-brother Don John (a suave and wily Steve Pickering) to prove that the spotless Hero is in fact a nymphomaniac. Claudio then publicly humiliates and rejects his startled bride at their wedding. You ask yourself whether this man can be anything but a gullible and vindictive wimp. So I was strongly impressed with Josh Saleh’s efforts to keep that stereotype at bay. His Claudio shows a directness, intensity and humor I have experienced in no other performance of the role. With little help from Shakespeare and against all the textual odds, he persuades you almost against your will that Claudio may never be voted Leading Man of the Year but has something to be said for him and Saleh says it.
As for the motley crew of comedy cops who unwittingly uncover Don John’s dirty plot, Director Laura Gordon has inspiringly reinvented Dogberry and Company. They are now a surprisingly funny Boy Scout troop, headed by the busy Steve Pickering who does double duty as a plodding Scoutmaster who has somehow checked in from the U.S. deep South. He’s accompanied by the equally versatile Suzanne Sturn, who shifts from Hero’s urbane and indignant aunt Antonia into a Scout hat and black moustache to become Dogberry’s sidekick, Verges. Madison Kisst, Napoleon Jimenez and Isabel Pask lend some nice squeaky-voiced support in tracking down the bad guys.
The setting as always is full of forest glade and starlit charm, dressed in wartime Italian style, complete with curtained verandas, rain barrels and clumps of hedge that supply hiding places when Beatrice and Benedick are being duped into falling in love. Patty Gallagher is a forceful but compassionate local Governor, originally known as Leonato, but renamed Leonata. It’s fun having a woman in the trio of buddies who slyly con Benedick into wooing and romance in a sequence that always works well and is a high point of this tasteful mounting of a quirky but endearing favorite.