Much Ado About "Much Ado" at Everyman

By: Nov. 12, 2007
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◊◊◊◊ 1/2 out of five. 2 hours, 20 minutes, plus intermission. 

It may be cold, windy and rainy outside as fall finally takes hold in Baltimore, but inside Everyman Theatre, it is bright, sunny and warm as we are delightfully transported to 17th Century Italy.  The occasion is both William Shakespeare's comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, and Everyman's Shakespearean debut.  Directed with a rapid fire pace by Vincent Lancisi, and performed by some of this area's most gifted performers, their debut is a stellar one.  They can take their place proudly among the area's other Shakespearean powerhouses, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.

Shakespeare's comedy concerns, among other things, a fiery couple who show their love and respect through vicious (and very funny) repartee, another young couple instantly in love, but nearly torn apart by a cruel joke made by a jealous relative.  Ah, but this is a Shakespearean comedy, so you know going in that all will be well by the final curtain.  And you also know that it is the journey there that is all of the fun.  Bathed in a mood of celebration (the war is over, the men are returning, and love is in the air), this production is awash in spectacle (celebratory dances, a masquerade), swashbuckling derring-do and enough sexual innuendo to really turn up the heat. 

Much of the success of this production lies with Mr. Lancisi and his production staff, aces all.  His direction is fast-paced - the witty barbs fly like arrows from a bow - and the romance is highlighted by high physical comedy, with people hiding behind greenery to overhear talk of love and matchmaking.  It also takes a somewhat shocking serious turn at the start of act two, with emotions running high, and face slapping, swords drawn, and a fainting spell or two.  The combat and physical demands of the blocking are expertly executed, with some moves eliciting mild gasps from the first-nighters (fight choreography by Lewis Shaw).  Daniel Ettinger, as usual, has come up with a beautiful setting for the play, this time a Tuscan styled home facade with walls, coupled with a terracotta entrance, all surrounded by stylized greenery, geometric in shape and enhanced by twinkling lights.  The realism of the home coupled with the whimsical representation of nature mirror the duality of realism and fancy in the work.  Michael Philippi's lighting is appropriately warm and moody when necessary, and helps focus our attention in busier scenes.  Kathleen Geldard's costumes are light and breezy, evocative of the mood of the piece while maintaining the time period.  The masquerade scene is especially beautiful to watch, with the masks being an intriguing highlight.   

Oddly, though, the three villains of the piece (dressed in black, naturally) look out of place, modern anomalies in an otherwise dead on period piece.  The two henchmen (Mark Krawczyk and Kaveh Haerian) do their ugly best to put a kink into the proceedings, but are really strange looking in what appears to be black denim with large silver buttons.  Their leader, the deliciously low and nasty Don John (played with gleefully evil panache by Jason Lott), is similarly garbed, though his outfit looks to be largely made of leather.  The resulting look is less of ominous foreboding than three guys on the way to a leather bar. 

But how is the acting?  Across the board, the acting is excellent, from the smallest ensemble role to the leads.  What is nice about the use of a small ensemble (Ian Belknap, Andrew Gaylin, Dustin Loomis, Nat Riley and Nan Willis) is that they are truly needed, and used to wonderful effect, rather than just used to fill in space in crowd scenes.  Whether they are moving scenery and props or acting in bit parts, each is fully present and in some form of character from curtain to curtain.  The three gentlemen are particularly funny as night guards on the streets of the city. 

Kenneth Jackson, Jr. does a nice job with a role that requires him to sing, among other things, and he has terrific presence.  The same can be said of the always delightful Stan Weiman, here playing a bit part (though crucial to the finale) as Friar Francis.  Karen Novack gives a saucy turn as a lusty lady in waiting, and Dawn Ursula does double duty as a sexton and a more pragmatic lady in waiting. 

Michael Kramer is a blustery blend of hero and machismo as Don Pedro, who as relative to the young man about to be wed, gets caught up in the rumors and deception that threatens to tear apart friends and family alike.  Everyman regular and resident company member Carl Schurr is quite commanding as Leonato, patriarch of the distaff side of the impending marriage.  He plays it all - comedy, drama, and even a tinge of tragedy before the night is over - with an ease and presence that makes him very watchable, and extremely easy to understand.  Any and all traces of "Shakespearean confusion" are gone with his masterful interpretation of the poetic lines. 

Adding extremely high comedy to the proceedings is the comic duo of two of this area's most beloved performers, Wil Love as Dogberry and Vivienne Shub as his sidekick, Verges.  Both the most common of The Common folk, they play the wise fool to the hilt.  They exchange witty plays on words and hilarious sight gags that threaten to steal the show, and truth be told, Ms. Shub in full beard and gravelly voice practically does just that.  Slick and professional with heart to spare, these two provide a highlight, not only to the production, but to the entire Baltimore theatre season. 

Of course, a Shakespearean comedy is only as good as its central interests, and Everyman has hit the jackpot with this quartet of gifted actors.  As the rapier tongued pair, Beatrice and Benedick, Deborah Hazlett and Jim Jack bring a fire and passion to each syllable they utter, and they spar as well as any Kate and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew I've ever seen.  (I'd love to see what these two could do with that vehicle!)  Ms. Hazlett brings a grace and dignity to a role that could easily be played for obvious bawdy laughs.  Oh, she can be bawdy when called upon, but it is great to see her temper it with class and affection.  Mr. Jack is a smart-ass of the utmost esteem here, and swaggers with a cocky arrogance that is both mischievous and funny.  He never annoys and you find yourself routing for him the whole way.  He is called upon to address the audience frequently and handles that very well, establishing an easy rapport with us. 

Megan Anderson, always fantastic in my book, can easily add Shakespearean ingenue to her already impressive resume of acting abilities.  As Hero, she is, at turns, a wide-eyed innocent, a sharp-witted femme fatale, and a deeply distraught victim of rumor.  She handles a very emotional and graphically abusive scene with dexterity and a realism that left me wondering if perhaps she were truly injured.  And her chemistry with her leading man, Claudio, is very real and richly romantic.  Matthew Schleigh, as Claudio, is a wonderful surprise here.  Making his Everyman debut, his performance here is also this reviewer's first seeing him in a non-musical role (though he does sing a love ballad that would make your knees weak).  When Mr. Schleigh is good, he is really good.  And here, he is no less than excellent, giving a rich full-bodied performance.  He is charming as a young man in love, sweet as a smitten groom-to-be, and superb at the macho swagger and righteous indignation his Claudio feels as he is tricked into believing his love has been betrayed.  What makes that aspect of his portrayal all the richer is the stolen moment or two he takes to reveal a broken heart.  I look forward to seeing where this multi-talented young man's career goes next! 

Welcome to the Shakespearean Big Leagues, Everyman!  You join some truly exceptional company in the area.  How great to think that we might just get quality Shakespeare even more regularly here in Charm City!


PHOTOS by Stan Barouh.  TOP to BOTTOM: Masqueraders in Much Ado About Nothing;   The Company; The Villains (Kaveh Haerian, Mark Krawczyk and Jason Lott); Carl Schurr and Megan Anderson; Wil Love, Dawn Ursula and Vivienne Shub; Jim Jack and Deborah Hazlett; Megan Anderson and Matthew Schleigh.



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