Much Ado About Nothing (Bank Street Players)

The Bank Street Players are running a really, really fine production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, through Saturday evening.  It is absolutely worth the 30 minute drive for Huntsville folks to go see this Decatur show.  Even though the opening night rain forced us all to the alternate venue at the Princess Theatre, for the rest of the run it should be in the outdoor amphitheater in Founder’s Park, and I envy those who will get to enjoy it that way.

Much Ado About Nothing has one of the best romantic relationships in the Shakespeare canon–Beatrice and Benedick.  They both have sharp wits and sharper tongues, and they’ve been dueling with words for years, both swearing that they will never get married.  Shakespeare crafted a brilliant scheme by their friends to get them together, and when those scenes are done right, as they are in this production, the audience is grinning from ear to ear as these two finally realize they love each other.  But the play is not just about them.  There is also the “young love” plot line; the evil brother who tries to ruin everyone’s happiness; and of course, the town “clowns”, who think they are WAY smarter than they really are.  Much Ado has something for everyone, and is one of Shakespeare’s best and most accessible comedies.

This Bank Street Players production hits all the marks almost to perfection.  Chuck Puckett’s direction is spot-on. One of the challenges of a Shakespeare production is getting across the 400-year old language, and that starts with making sure the actors themselves understand what they are saying.  This group clearly does, and they have such an easy way with the dialogue, that within 15 minutes, the audience forgets that it’s supposed to be having a hard time understanding it.  Everything just “makes sense”, and the praise for that lands firmly at Puckett’s feet.  As an example, one way of making the language accessible for the audiences is for the actors to add extra gestures and “indicators” when saying a line, to help make it clear what an out-of-use word means, but it’s a subtle thing–too little and we don’t get it, too much and it becomes over-acting.    Under Puckett’s guiding hand, those indicators were generally at just the right level.  That’s just one tiny example of the fine work he did–the blocking supports the action well, the staging paints the proper pictures, the tempo and rhythm of the production are kept well in hand, and all the expected laughs land as they should.  Just about the only negative directorial item from Thursday’s performance were the occasional odd entrances and exits, giving the impression at times that the actors themselves weren’t sure where they were going.  It is likely a result of using the unplanned indoor location, with its different layout than the amphitheater, so all should be fine for the remainder of the shows.

Melissa Waldron McMahan and David Yarbrough, as the leads “Beatrice” and “Benedick” are a wonderful combination on stage, and manage to hit all the right notes for their characters, starting with the biting wordplay at the beginning all the way through to their inevitable confessions of love to each other.  Yarbrough, in particular, is absolutely amazing, handling the character with ease that defies the imagination for someone performing in only his second theatrical production. Puckett, in his role as “Don Pedro”, the reigning prince of the region, is clearly a past master with Shakespearean dialect, and commands the stage with his presence.  Gary McKenzie, as the evil brother “Don John”, does occasionally lose his projection, dropping a line or two into inaudibility, but otherwise has an amazing voice for the part, and simply oozes menace and ill will.  It’s always a joy when Shakespeare productions include the music that he intended, and Hailey Beard, as “Bella”, does a fine job with her three songs.  Don Grace, as “Leonato” the family patriarch, gets a bit out of his diction depth in the more excited scenes, but otherwise does an excellent job with the part.  Bryna Toland, as his daughter, the young lover “Hero”, does a very nice job of portraying the innocent, yet strong character.  Carter Crane, as her love interest, “Claudio”, handles his rather demanding part very well, and totally holds his own on the stage with the more experienced older actors.  The scene where his “Claudio”, along with “Leonato”, and “Don Pedro”, pull the wool over “Benedick’s” eyes in the garden, is one of the best, tightest scenes in the play, and is one of the only non-clown scenes to get exit applause on opening night.

Ah, the clowns.    In Shakespeare, there are two kinds of characters that provide the comic relief–“fools” are professional jokers, like a king’s court jester, who are quite aware of the deeper meanings of their low humor; while “clowns” are less-educated buffoons, usually country bumpkins, who are unintentionally funny.  Much Ado has clowns–the town guard which foils the sinister plot entirely by accident.  Phil Parker, as “Dogberry”, and Michael Bradley, as his lieutenant, “Verges”, absolutely knock it out of the park, and had exit applause on almost every scene.    The “Dogberry” character brings an extra challenge to the modern-day actor.  Part of Dogberry’s humor in Shakespeare’s time was that he constantly mis-uses words, like saying “who is the most desertless man to be constable” when he clearly means “deserving”.  This is hilarious–if you understand the mistake.  English has changed in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote his plays, so almost everything he wrote can require a bit of work for the audience to follow.  It’s not a big deal much of the time, when we just need the gist of some super flowery paragraph, but in this case, we need to understand that the sentence does NOT actually make any sense.  And thus the challenge for the actor–to make it clear that the reason the sentence is incomprehensible is because it’s SUPPOSED to be, not because we got lost in Shakespearean English again.  These days, it’s just about impossible to make every one of Dogberry’s malapropisms clear to the audience, but Parker gets most of them, earning at least some of the word-play chuckles Shakespeare intended.  That said, he and Bradley more than make up for it with the physical comedy–the absolutely zany, over-the-top, totally perfect, physical goofiness.  Parker and Bradley absolutely nail these comic characters.  Ably supported by the “Watchmen”, John Ballew, Nathan Johnson, and Johnathan Little, the clown scenes are a joy, to the point that by the end of the show, just by entering, they start the audience chuckling.

The costumes, by Paulette Morgan, are totally sufficient for the production.  They are well thought-out and constructed, and easily distinguish the different character groupings.  Something to soften the hard soles on Don John’s shoes should be considered, but otherwise, the costuming is exactly what the production called for.  The scenery, by Puckett, is necessarily simple, but again, fills the needs of the script.  Billy Carpenter’s Sound cues had a couple hiccups on opening night, but otherwise do a nice job of supporting the moods of the show.  Melissa McMahan’s choreography is simple, yet elegant, and has the extra bonus of being “period”.

Overall, I highly recommend this Bank Street Players production.  It won’t be around long, so don’t delay.  Admission is free, but it’s worth the price of a paid ticket, so consider leaving a donation at the table with the programs.  Much Ado About Nothing runs through Saturday, 14 May, in the Amphitheater in Founder’s Park, off Bank Street, in Decatur.  Bring sunscreen, bug spray, and a blanket or lawn chair.  Shows are at 7 PM Friday and Saturday nights, with a 2 PM Saturday matinee.  More information can be found here.

PS.  In an interesting quirk of timing, another local theatre group, Rocket City Shakespeare, opens THEIR version of Much Ado About Nothing next Thursday.  It will be a treat to see two different treatments of the same script in such a short time-span.  Check out the Upcoming Productions page for more information.

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