Robert Currier directs Much Ado About Nothing this season like he’s been thinking about doing it his whole life. The production races by as if he’d been making fine tune adjustments on it in his garage for years. This is an aerodynamic performance, and the perspicacity involved in accomplishing this feat is beyond measure.
The show starts with music that introduces a thread that weaves in and out of the production, providing another dimension and a pretense for some minor characters to be on stage to deliver their lines. Directors are often challenged to give characters who speak very little something to do while they are more or less just standing around. Currier gives three of them instruments, Linnea George on violin as Ursula, Terry Rucker on guitar as Balthasar, and Mick Berry on hammered dulcimer and drums as Conrad. And it makes perfect sense, so perfect I almost didn’t catch the trick. People with instruments in their hands have a reason to be on stage, for the characters and for the audience, and they are welcome by both, thanks to their old-timey sound in this case. Composer Billie Cox gives the trio pieces that complement rather than compete with Shakespeare. Another thing the music does is transport us to the American South without even a hiccup. The way the audience instantly accepts the setting is really quite magical.
Bruce Lackovic’s set design and Joel Eis on props creates a world that seamlessly incorporates the musical accompaniments. There is a green trellis on stage that provides cover for sneaking eavesdroppers and peaking lovers from which Benedick (Darren Bridgett) hangs by one foot, a scene so spectacularly executed it’s sure to bode the question, “how is that possible?” There is also a fountain center stage into which everyone in the play ends up throwing a coin, giving the production a little more than just wishful thinking. The fountain plays a funny role in Benedick’s “jade’s trick,” too, resulting in a wet Cat Thompson. Thompson’s Beatrice eventually ends up in the fountain with a bottle of Tanqueray pulled from a ubiquitous drink cart for a fairly hilarious scene. The whole thing screams South Carolina mansion to me, which luckily includes antiquated and complicated courtship rituals, military nostalgia and aristocracy, because the play is filled with such things.
While in the fountain, Thompson is wearing a bold and beautiful green dress. With shocking red hair, it’s difficult to tell which is made more striking by the contrast--the dress or her hair, but she looks stunning in it. Costume Designer Michael A. Berg knows how to make people look good; the soldiers in the play look like nice tough guys rather than dark and brutal warriors or pushovers, and the women look coy and beautiful without seeming kept or pampered. Note to Thompson: Swipe that green dress when the run is through.
And Thompson has a lot more going for her than just looks. She manages to play Beatrice in a way that is clever and cunning, without going too far and seeming too bitchy. There’s never any doubt in anyone’s mind who Benedick should love. Bridgett plays Benedick a little mean, but his perceived clumsiness and fretfulness saves and endears him.
Michael Ray Wisely is a good Dogberry, and the cute and bubbly Khamara Pettus is a wonderful Hero. But most impressive are Don Pedro (William Elsman) and his bastard brother Don John (Ryan Schmidt). Elsman is so convincing as a charismatic leader of men who wants to help his friends, that when he answers the accusing Christopher Makish (Claudio) with a smile and outstretched arms, we believe his innocence immediately and can’t wait for Claudio to embrace the situation. And when he backs up Claudio at the botched wedding scene and condemns Hero, he seems like he’s in the right, and we cannot condemn him. Elsman is tall and graceful and speaks with authority and respect for everyone around him. Even at his worst moment in the play, Elsman’s Don Pedro is still the best man on stage.
Conversely, Schmidt’s Don John is not only condemnable but frighteningly so. Schmidt wields a straight razor murderously close to Conrade’s throat during their first scene together in such a way that made me genuinely fear for his safety, and that’s no easy feat. In movie terms, I would say that Ryan Schmidt plays Don John less like Keanu Reeves did in Branagh’s version of “Much Ado” and more like Heath Ledger might have if they cast him off the set of “Dark Knight.” He’s scary and evil without any of the camp or foolishness that Don John often dons on stage. His anger spits rather than roars from his mouth, and his forward motions toward people would make anyone flinch. A natural-born Tybalt, if he’s so inclined in the future.
Marin Shakespeare provides consistently good theatre (overall), in a warm and friendly atmosphere that is inviting, but this Much Ado is a matter of when good becomes great—so much so that a second viewing would be just as enjoyable as the first.