Over the next two weekends, Rocket City Shakespeare is running its final production before closing its doors forever–a fast-paced, lively version of Much Ado About Nothing. This play is very high-energy, and the company’s command of the nuanced meanings in the Shakespearean dialogue is outstanding. Done in a style similar to that of Shakespeare’s time, the result for today’s audiences is a production that feels over-the top, but still provides an energizing couple hours of laughs.
Much Ado About Nothing is probably Shakespeare’s most accessible comedy for modern audiences. Take away the 400-year old language, and you’ve got a plot that wouldn’t be unreasonable for a romcom movie. The local prince (Don Pedro), returning from subduing his rebellious sister (Dona Joan), stops off at a friend’s house (Leonato) to stay for a month. One of Don Pedro’s lieutenants (Claudio) falls for Leonato’s daughter (Hero), and she is successfully wooed. Another Don Pedro lieutenant (Benedick) has known Leonato’s niece (Beatrice) for years, and they have taken verbal pieces out of each other most of that time. Technically, the Claudio-Hero story line gets more stage time, but Benedick and Beatrice are generally considered the lead characters, because they are such an incredible, fun couple to watch. They protest their hatred of each other, and of marriage in general, a little TOO much. To kill time waiting for the Hero-Claudio wedding, the other major characters hatch a plot to get Beatrice and Benedick together. The tactic, brilliant writing by Shakespeare, works, and the couple wakes up to the fact that they have loved each other all along. Dona Joan, the defeated sister of the prince, is bored and tries to do evil for its own sake, making Claudio believe that Hero has been cheating on him during their engagement. The plan would have worked, if not for the incompetent and lazy local watchmen, who luck into overhearing Dona Joan’s henchwomen discussing the trick. The “low” humor is provided by the leader of the watch (Dogberry) and her lieutenant (Verges), with their silly antics, and complete inability to use the English language correctly.
This production is very different from more conventional stagings of Shakespeare. There is absolutely no fourth wall, with most of the lines being spoken directly to the audience, rather than to the character for whom the line is intended. To modern sensibilities, this show is over-acted and artificial, however this style of production is likely closer to the way Shakespeare would have performed. “Realism” in theatre did not develop for a couple centuries after his death, and this RCS production matches the in-your-face, hammy style that was more common in Shakespeare’s day. Think stereotypical opera acting, without the singing. In the tiny, intimate Black Box studio space in which it is performed, this makes for a very compelling immediacy to the performance. With no audience member ever farther than three feet from the acting space, and often MUCH closer than that to the actors, RCS meets its goal of making the audience part of the production. Guard your M&Ms.
The direction, by Lee Hibbard and Evelyn Murdock, takes this show in a very uptempo direction, resulting in a very funny collection of comedic bits, without necessarily being a play or plot line with any believability or connectedness for modern audiences. While it is an evening full of laughter and chuckles, it impacts today like two hours watching an improv group, rather than a scripted play–very entertaining, but feeling like something is missing. It is an enervating experience, but the general pacing and atmosphere of this production sometimes defeat the larger purpose we are accustomed to today–telling a story. During the first act in particular, every single character is acting BIG, bordering on mugging and hamming. Some level of this does help to emphasize and support the meanings behind the 400-year old dialogue, and of course it also helps to point up the comedic bits. The evidence that the level is a bit TOO high in Act I, however, is when the “clowns” make their first appearance right after the intermission. “Dogberry”, “Verges”, and the town Watch, are supposed to provide the play’s broad, over-the-top, almost-slapstick, “low-brow” humor, but in this production, they don’t stand out at all. Their scene fits in perfectly with what all the other characters have been doing all along. Beyond a certain level, this style of in-your-face acting today actually distracts from “the play”, and makes it very difficult for a modern audience to get involved in the storyline or to sympathize with the characters. When Beatrice and Benedick finally get together, it is an intellectual check-mark that the expected plot event has occurred, rather than an emotional moment of warm feelings for two characters we have grown to love. Matters improve in the second act, as the serious, dramatic plot points develop, and the tone of the play settles down to a more “realistic” level. This helps the “clown” scenes regain their impact by now being different from the rest of the show, but is too late to get the more sympathetic characters and plot lines into our hearts. If the purpose of the production is to pack as many chuckles as possible into two hours, and to keep a modern audience on edge, then it more than succeeds.
The actors have all done an admirable job in this lively, active production, universally diving head-first into this 90-mile-an-hour production. Brian Beck, as “Benedick”, and Larkin Grant, as “Beatrice”, are well-matched as the constantly quarreling couple eventually tricked into falling in love. They both have full command of their dialogue and that relationship, and provide for some good laughs as they duel their way into each others’ hearts. Their individual moments of realization that they DO love the other, are both a bit glossed over in the frenetic pace of the show, but they sell every other moment with full conviction. Alex Beck, as “Hero”, the young daughter wooed (“heh, heh…’wooed'”…never mind; you’ll get that when you see the show) by Claudio, does a stellar job in this production, providing one of the more believable characters on the stage. Kareem Omar, as “Claudio”, Hero’s love interest, tends to rush his lines a bit, without the diction training to keep his words clear, but still does a fine job portraying the range of emotions called for with this character. Andy Cayse, as “Don Pedro”, comes across like a sleazy 70s lounge owner, likely in an effort to garner more laughs. Possibly as a result of this choice, his character, supposedly the ruling Prince of the region, is treated with almost none of the respect one would expect from any of the other characters. That aside, Cayse does a great job of sticking with this choice throughout, providing a memorable character onstage, worthy of his own set of laughs. Oddly, one of the few characters who does NOT treat the Prince with complete familiarity, is “Leonato”, his supposed close friend. Played by Chad Allen Thomas, Leonato treats the Prince like a mafia don he doesn’t want to upset. Leonato does NOT seem happy that the Prince is going to stay for a month, or that the Prince may marry his daughter, or seem excited at all about the idea of getting Benedick and Beatrice together. Still, while it is an interesting set of choices for the character, Thomas successfully manages to provide a very real person stuck in sometimes unreal situations out of his control. Caitlin Mackie, as the evil “Dona Joan”, is another actor rushing through lines a bit fast at times, but totally knocks this evil, conniving schemer character out of the park. Mandy Hughes, as “Dogberry”, is clearly having an absolute blast with this character for whom there is no such thing as “too much”. It is a shame that the rest of the production matched Dogberry’s antics, because Hughes’ fine work gets a bit dimmed by the surroundings. Joanna DeAtley, as “Borachia”, and Shawn Tracey, as both the Friar and the Sexton, are absolute stand-outs among the supporting cast. Both do stellar jobs with their roles, and are a joy to watch.
Given the space and funding available to RCS, the technical elements are necessarily uncomplicated. There is, in fact, no one credited in the program with any technical design elements. That said, the show isn’t “missing” anything technically, and the audience is fully able to enjoy the experience and follow the action.
The production runs through Sunday, 29 May. The absolute shame is that Rocket City Shakespeare will be closing up shop after this production. The founder, Mandy Hughes, and her chief assistant, Lee Hibbard, are both leaving the Huntsville area this summer to further their academic careers, so there is no one left to keep the flow of Shakespeare shows coming. Don’t miss this final RCS production, for a little peek into the style of performance that Shakespeare would have felt quite at home with. Ticket information and showtimes are available at the RCS website. Definitely call ahead for reservations, or show up quite early, because the small space fills up quickly.
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