Saturday, February 4, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing at the American Shakespeare Center

The American Shakespeare Center's Actors Renaissance Season is off and running with a charming "merry war" upon the stage at the Blackfriar's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing kicks off this exciting winter repertory session having been mounted in early January 2012 with only a few days of rehearsal. Yet, once again, the talented company of actors proves that it doesn't take months of rehearsals carefully conceived by a director and designers to put compelling theater in front of a paying audience.

 Much Ado About Nothing is definitely a rousing show filled with compelling characters that give a depth of emotion that is infectious.   This popular tale of two sets of lovers, the young Claudio and Hero whose love is nearly thwarted by the villainy of the evil Don John, and the greatest wits in the Shakespeare canon, Beatrice and Benedict, is clearly staged and a rollicking good time. The comedy is broad and physical where it needs to be and the pathos, as the story takes a darker turn, heartbreaking and real. The company is to be commended for creating a great deal of something out of this story supposedly about nothing.

 For those unfamiliar with the plot, Don Pedro of Aragon, returning from war decides to visit Leonato, the Governor of Messina. He travels with Claudio, a young count who loves Leonato's daughter, Hero, and desires to marry her. His other bosom companion is Benedict, who spars mercilessly with Leonato's niece, Beatrice. All would be merry except that Don John, the "bastard" brother of Don Pedro, who is recently reconciled with his brother, cannot deny his villainous nature and sets forth to ruin Claudio and Hero's happiness. Meanwhile everyone else conspires to make the obstinate Benedict and Beatrice fall in love. There are accusations of unfaithfulness, pain and heartbreak before everything is resolved.

There is not a weak member of the company of 12 actors, several of whom play multiple roles. Daniel Kennedy is strong as Leonato's brother, Antonio and downright silly as George Seacoal of the watch and the musician, Balthazar.   Rene Thornton, Jr. shows a steady hand as Leonato yet allows emotional depth and fire to rage forth when he believes that his daughter is not as she seems and later when he turns his wrath on those who maligned his family.

Jeremy West colors the villainous sidekick Borachio with believable remorse when the character learns the consequences of his role in Don John's plot. Alison Glenzer is sultry as the gentlewoman Margaret and quite adorable as the "Kung Fu" master First Watchman.  Sarah Fallon is sweet as Ursula and contemptible as Conrad. As the object of Conrad's disdain, John Harrell brings Law and Order: Messina to the stage complete with a dash of Columbo in his portrayal of the eloquent malaprop, Dogberry.

Aiden O'Reilly uses a minimum of movement and the cadence of a serpent to the role of the villain Don John. The choice he has made to distance himself physically from the merry mania of the group scenes swirling around him, his Don John in draws the audience into his web. As the objects of his disdain, Gregory Jon Phelps brings regal grace and charming density to Don Pedro, yet manages to keep the audience's sympathy when the Prince believes Don John's duplicity. Chris Johnston wears his heart on his sleeve and does an excellent job of portraying how easy it is for Claudio to be duped, not once, but twice by clearly keeping Claudio's emotional journey in the forefront of his performance. Brandi Rhome's sweet and gentle Hero is tea and sympathy, yet she shows a sly streak when she is duping her cousin, Beatrice into falling in love.

And what a love affair is unfolding upon the Blackfriar's Playhouse stage. Miriam Donald assays her end of the merry war with crisp daggers of dialogue and uses her tiny stature to reduce Benjamin Curns' Benedict to quivering jelly by merely sneaking up on him unawares. Mr. Curns, in his turn provides a master class in physical comedy (beware the famous gulling scene) that is equally matched by his razor sharp retorts. They are a charming pair that carry this astounding production through the rafters of the balcony seats.

Much Ado About Nothing will be presented as part of the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with William Shakespeare's Richard III, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's Philaster, or Love Lies A-Bleeding, Thomas Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, and Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage through April 8, 2012. For tickets and other performance information, please visit

During the Actors' Renaissance Season there are no directors or designers. The American Shakespeare Center recreates what extensive research believes were the conditions that Shakespeare's acting company would have used to stage a play. The actors receive only cue scripts containing their lines and a short "cue", the last few words of the preceding actor's line. They are responsible for acquiring their own costumes and props from the stock available at the theater. There is a prompter on the side of the stage in case someone forgets a line. The rehearsal period is a matter of days.

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