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Review: World War Two MUCH ADO? Who Knew?

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company serves up a charmingly-reimagined classic

Review: World War Two MUCH ADO? Who Knew?

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's summer comedy performances at the ruins of the Patuxent Female Institute in Ellicott City consistently deliver a relaxed theater-going experience, year after year. You arrive, perhaps with a picnic dinner, you congregate in a cluster of lawn seating, and you sit back as a Shakespeare comedy is presented with lots of music and a very permissive attitude toward things like revisions in the temporal or geographical setting or in the characters' traditional gender or race. The occasional airplane overhead or train horn or motorcycle in the valley below is taken in stride. The Company relies on Shakespeare's high spirits and a nightly wine raffle to carry us through whatever genial nonsense unspools on the stage, and to make us forget, if we're even inclined to remember, that lots of liberties are being taken with the Bard's plays, and even more with conventional staging conventions that most of us older spectators grew up with.

Case in point: the CSC latest, Much Ado About Nothing. You may have forgotten that Shakespeare set this play in 1944 Paris, for instance (notwithstanding all the mentions of Messina), or that the governor of the town was female, or that the villain Don John was also female - and Russian, or that Dogberry was a gendarme. Those aspects of the play had certainly slipped my mind until I got to Ellicott City on press night. But then again, why not? Why shouldn't the heroes be mostly GIs who've just pushed Hitler out of Paris? It certainly evokes a swell mood of relief and long-deferred happiness and an inclination to play and love which were briefly the lot of our soldiers when they were welcomed into Paris that summer. It also licenses the singers and musicians of the CSC to visit songs of a certain period and vintage: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, I Love Paris, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and La Vie en Rose among them.

It's certainly more fun to hang on waiting to see what unexpected treats director Sèamus Miller has attached to this conception of Much Ado, which still remains unavoidably a warhorse of a play, than to watch it stripped it down to conventional casting and Elizabethan dress as we have probably seen it presented often before. The essential attribute of the play, the combative romance of Benedick and Beatrice (Dylan Arredondo and Anna DiGiovanni), is the only truly sacred element, and that element is preserved pretty much as Shakespeare probably envisioned it (save for the all-male cast to which Shakespeare's troupe was restricted). Arredondo and DiGiovanni, pictured above at one of the graver moments in their mostly light-hearted relationship, give these principals a full-throated presentation, Arredondo leaning heavily on physical comedy and DiGiovanni on the more cerebral element. In the end, their predicament is that in their merry combat each of them has painted themself into a corner; they need to become lovers but for all their formidable brains neither can do it without the help of friends and a development in the subplot that gives them an excuse to reset their relationship. This problem gives them a delicate palette of emotions to evince: scornful derisiveness, hesitancy, hypocrisy, passion, rueful candor. Arredondo and DiGiovanni serve these changes up charmingly.

Speaking of that subplot, the love match between Benedick's buddy Claudio (Jordan Brown) and Beatrice's cousin Hero (Kate Forton), it must be acknowledged that it isn't one of Shakespeare's finest. It hinges on a couple of deceptions that in real life would have deceived no one, tied to conventions of sexual jealousy and female purity that no longer resonate much, however they may have struck the Renaissance audience. What remains if you disregard these problems is even worse: a sudden grimness in tone that has seemed out-of-place to me every time I've seen the play. Director Miller has creditably done what he can to shoo the audience past that place, but it still leaves a bit of a bad taste, particularly in how we feel about Claudio, who is supposed to be one of the good guys.

As to the bad guys, well, I loved the re-thought character Don John, now Madame Jean (Emily Erickson), though someone will have to explain to me what Russians were doing in Paris in 1944, because I seem to have forgotten that. Just the Natasha Fatale accent sold me, however. (Wait for her to pronounce Hero's name; it will be worth it.)

Of course the PFI ruins serve up a ready-made interesting and appropriate setting for almost any kind of period drama, but as my companion pointed out to me, with so many character entrances coming from so many directions, they must pose a singular challenge for a stage manager. (Just watch as Benedick pops up all over while eavesdropping on his friends, or as prisoners under guard shuffle onstage from places so far from the stage that a stopwatch was probably necessary to plan when the procession should start.) So, though I rarely acknowledge a stage manager, I feel it my duty to tip my hat to Maggie Urban in this instance. I was laughing a lot because of her.

All in all, then, this is an especially enjoyable edition of the CSC summer comedy experience. Do go, and bring friends and family along, because this is a show to share.

Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare, directed by Séamus Miller, presented by the Cheapeake Shakespeare Company through July 24 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3655 Church Road, Ellicott City, MD 21043. Tickets are $24-48.

Production photo by Kiirstn Pagan.

From This Author - Jack L. B. Gohn

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