Much Ado About Nothing
Reviewed by Mayank Keshaviah
Through September 28
In Act V of Shakespeare’s oft-revived comedy about recalcitrant lovers, Benedick (Robertson Dean) admits to Beatrice (Susan Angelo), “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.”
And good thing too, for not only do these two forge an archetype that has informed pairs of quarreling lovers for centuries since the work’s 17th century publication, but their rapier wit and bantering barbs remain the play’s comedic heart.
For those who have missed the many revivals or adaptations of Much Ado over the years, the story revolves around two pairs of lovers: the aforementioned Beatrice and Benedick, and the young lovers Hero (Jackie Kiikvee) and Claudio (Colin Simon). Hero and Claudio get together relatively quickly after Don Pedro (understudy Christopher Salazar) woos Hero on Claudio’s behalf, even though Claudio is temporarily mistaken that Don Pedro is wooing for himself. For a while, the jealous Claudio even calls off the wedding, infuriated by rumors spread by Don Jon (Mark Lewis) — Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother — that Hero has been unfaithful to Claudio.
By this time Beatrice and Benedick have been tricked into falling for each other. However, their love, too, is tested by the complications involved in restoring Hero’s honor, saving face for her father Leonato (Franc Ross), and finding a way to reunite the young couple while bringing to justice those who slandered Hero.
And if that’s not enough shenanigans for one play, as in many of Shakespeare’s works, there is also a comic side-plot involving the constable Dogberry (a Barney Fife-like Tim Halligan) and his watchmen.
Co-directors Ellen Geer and Willow Geer deftly physicalize the scene in the arbor in which Don Pedro and his men delightedly play matchmaker by tricking a “hidden” Benedick who eavesdrops on them. The directors similarly utilize physical comedy in the parallel scene in which Hero and her maid Ursula (Savannah Southern Smith) do the same for Beatrice. While much of the tone is properly light, the directors do bring an intensity and ferocity of emotion to the wedding scene’s latter half, after Claudio accuses Hero of infidelity. Their staging puts to good use the length and breadth of the Botanicum’s multi-level playing space, with entrances and exits efficiently executed to keep transition times between scenes to their absolute minimum.
Though Angelo and Dean skew a tad bit older than Beatrice and Benedick have traditionally been played, both are truly hilarious and well cast. Angelo particularly shines during Beatrice’s “that I were a man” speech, and Dean’s transformation from stubborn bachelor to lovelorn softy is endearing. Kiikvee brings a dewy innocence to Hero, and Simon a comic geniality and earnestness to Claudio. Lewis, as chief nemesis, demonstrates appropriately biting anger, but Seta Alexander, as his henchman Borachio, has a smooth cunning and a serpent’s tongue that creates a more layered villain. The remainder of the cast is solid as well, with notable moments from Carolyn Marie Wright as Hero’s attendant Margaret, and Cynthia Kania as Friar Francis.
Above all, the Geers and their cast succeed in bringing to life Shakespeare’s sometimes difficult-to-parse verbiage, puns, and allusions. Rather than simply barreling through the language (as many productions do), creating a cascade of flowery but opaque poetry that washes over the audience, this production gives proper emotional weight and meaning to every line, elucidating Shakespeare’s text as if it were modern parlance.
Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; in rep, call for schedule; through September 28. (310) 455-3723, theatricum.com