Monday, February 10, 2020

Zaniness rules in Civic Theatre's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

The director's note in the "Much Ado About Nothing" program book gets directly to the historic significance of the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's current production.

It's the first full-length Shakespeare production ever for the company that began life 105 years ago as Indianapolis Civic Theatre, Emily Rogge Tzucker notes. The second performance I saw Saturday night revealed a production approach that spoke to Civic's broad appeal to its loyal public: Go deep on occasion, but bring instantly communicable theater values to the fore.

When it comes to comedy, underline it and maximize its connection with ordinary feelings. Give it a look that's strong on style: With scenic and lighting design by Ryan Koharchik, this production basks in Southern California sunlight, with a curvy stucco house front in Mission Revival and topiaries artfully placed around the yard — the home of media mogul Leonato (the play's governor of Messina). The action has been updated to right after World War II, placed for us immediately after a pre-curtain Swing Era soundtrack by interpolated radio patter from a deejay who calls himself "Billy Shakes." Multiple adjustments have to be made subsequently in the audience's mind: references to armor, swords, princes, and lords remain in the text, as they must.

Civic's "Much Ado": Benedick and Beatrice mix repartee with true romance.
Though the playwright drew upon ancient stories of marriageable women unjustly accused of infidelity, with the mistake eventually corrected for the sake of a happy ending, "Much Ado About Nothing" has long charmed readers and playgoers with its livelier subplot. So it's no departure from the play's essence that the feisty relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is foremost in Civic's production.

Antagonistic at the start, with every conversation striking sparks, the poor little rich girl Beatrice and the young officer Benedick eventually cast aside their warrior masks to reveal their true love. Each prompted by friends to be certain of the other's devotion, they are also moved by how the straightforward love of the young aristocrat Claudio (Nicholas Gibbs) and Hero, Leonato's daughter (Carly Masterson), has become undone by a plot against their marriage. Once that's set right and the villainy exposed, the well-practiced mutual resistance of Benedick and Beatrice falls away.

John Kern and Sara Castillo Dandurand are the unlikely lovers in roles that have provided a durable rom-com model for generations, fed by Hollywood. The director acknowledges this as the chief motive in her change of setting. Her interest in projecting that initial hostility was evident in the performance I saw, but some reluctance to let the witty dialogue carry the burden was also evident. Beatrice's barbs draw friendly laughter from onlookers, which makes them seem like the heroine's partisans and turns Benedick more into the butt of her
jokes. That adds to an imbalance that Shakespeare put there, insofar as the lady is the stronger character. Why not let the barbed badinage stand on its own two feet?

Fortunately, Kern's portrayal is strongly defined, making Benedick's path toward romantic ardor believable despite the obstacles he has long placed in it, with Beatrice's eager help. Dandurand's asperity in her role is vivid and fierce, despite the way its verbal splendor is partially masked by stage laughter. The director moves Benedick and Beatrice plausibly with respect to each other; the ambivalence is there as they lock in visually even when they seem most at odds.

Among the host of male roles, most stalwart in their representation of authority and "man-splaining" are Leonato and Don Pedro, prince of Aragon, as played by Tom Beeler and Joshua Ramsey. Darby Kear crisply sounded the master note of villainy, an unrewarding two-dimensional role, as Don John, Pedro's resentful brother and engineer of the plot against Hero.

Exposing the plot through happenstance is the slapstick team of Dogberry, Messina's master constable, played to the hilt by Kelsey VanVoorst. Dogberry and his/her bumbling assistants in the town's night watch are not the most inspired representatives of Shakespeare's low comedy. I can understand why a broad interpretation is tempting, but dialing down the ridiculousness might serve this production better. Malapropisms, a chief ingredient of Dogberry's buffoonery, are tedious on the page but can feel jolly good on the stage, especially as satire on officious types puffing up their minor status. In this performance, however, the word play is buried under well-designed but excessive physical comedy. The irony of a bunch of incompetents uncovering a scheme their clueless betters are unable to detect is delicious enough.

Another aspect of cartoonish stylization makes more sense, however: scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice
Male quintet bonds over "Sigh No More," a Marty-Shakespeare instant hit.
separately overhear their friends proclaiming their rivals' secret devotion. Eavesdropping juicing the plot is a hoary staple of stage drama (including the tragic instances in "Hamlet" and "Othello") and it probably deserves the kind of elaborate send-up the director gives it here. Other blithe touches that worked well were the ensemble tango early on and the celebratory swing dancing at the end. And Brent E. Marty fashioned a cute pop tune for a guy vocal group to go with Shakespeare's "Sigh No More," led by Jonathan Doram as Balthazar.

These were sort of secondary delights that served the main thrust of the production well. It's just that underneath there seemed to be some anxiety about how little the audience would understand unless the stage business was unrestrained. Yet the play's very title is a warning to anyone tempted to question details of an entertainment as well put-together as this one.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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