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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Much Ado About Nothing, under the stars

Or: The Catamaran and the Noble Ape

Much Ado About Nothing is, as this old curmudgeons holds it, a harder play to wrangle than most people think. True, it’s ribald and farcical and the wit flies thick and fast, but Shakespeare weaves in iron grey threads of danger and sorrow into his colorful tapestry, a gentle reminder that the brightest of comedies are only one slip away from the bloodiest of tragedies.

Sharon Ott’s turning of Much Ado is a prime example of this truth. Set at the dawn of the Jazz Age, before the shadows of the Great War have retreated from sight, the gorgeously costumed and deftly choreographed production handily entertains its audience throughout, but it is only when things get dark and dangerous that it snags our full attention.

Oddly enough, these weighty interruptions allow us to appreciate its romance and humor all the more. For example: after racing breathless from joke to joke, slap to almost kiss to slap, we find ourselves standing with Claudio at his repentance (a scene nigh perfectly lit by lighting designer Rick Martin). It gives us a chance to hold up and examine a rather sketchy character’s depth of feeling, before the delightful reconciliation of the next scene and the last skirmish of wits.

I must confess these moments are rather rare. The production tends to favor physical comedy slightly more than verbal wit. Benedict (J. Todd Adams) and Beatrice (Cassandra Bisseli) literally choke on “love” and “marriage” the words they have railed at for so long. Their baiting is accompanied by all kinds of Chicanery, and the antics of Dogberry and Verges (Richard Klautsch and M.A. Taylor) are straight from the Keystone Cops with a dash of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in to taste. While its true that Benadict’s bating and The Watch (augmented by Noah Moody and Austin Blunk) are hilariously funny, their gestures larger then life, and their stupidity always branching out in some unseen direction, I cannot help but point out that we come to hear these plays as well as see them.

Fortunately we have the likes of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (David Anthony Smith) and Count Claudio (Neil Brookshire). I am continually amazed at the quality of verse spoken under our stars, and how the Idaho Shakespeare Festival seems to attract and grow the most adapt handlers of Shakespearian verse. Smith makes each word ring out, be they fried in irony or soaked in royal censure, and has us feel the lines in our bones. Brookshire, condemned by nature to play love sick-men, once again gives his sweet breath to the service of Shakespeare's words while looking fairly sea-sick with “Love, against his will”.

This year these beloved veterans of our boards made room for our surprised admiration of Ursula the Maid (Kelly Rodgers). Rodgers spun the web of lies for the unsuspecting Beatrice in a full, rich voice that reached to the farthest reaches of the audience (no small feat in an outdoor amphitheater), and colored them with as much liveliness and intelligence as might be expected of our own Lynn Alison (here lending her strength the the heavily altered “Antonia”) or even Sara M. Brunner. We wish Rodgers joy of the run and hope to see her tried in summers to come.

However, the true measure of a Much Ado, no matter how Dogberry may strut or how wisely the Prince saws, lies at last in its Beatrice and its Benedict. They not only have the most (and to be frank, best) to say but they also have the most opportunity for growth; an opportunity which, I am happy to say, both Adams and Bisselli size heartily.

Adams had me (little judgmental me) worried at the top. His Benedict seemed to sling and jab not only his wit but every single line at his cast mates or the audience, his voice always at full power and grating under the strain. Concerned as I for the text and his health, I could not deny that he was still a delight to watch. Adams has an extraordinary command over his body and is an adapt at the art of doing harm to himself for comedy’s sake (as anyone who saw his performance last year as a narcoleptic lawyer will attest to). Happily, by the second act his pummeling delivery was discovered to be a choice and not a habit. It was an extension of Benedict's “sour armor” that is prized apart, if not completely removed, as he opens up to his sparing partner. So vulnerable became Adams private addresses that by that beautifully simple line “Serve God, love me, and mend” I could have forgiven him even a mispronounced “doth”.

Of all the Mighty Beatrices these eyes have seen and ears have heard, (which include such Lights as Emma Thompson and Kathleen Pirkl Tague, of blessed memory) I’ve never seen one more...inventive than Bisselli. To use a metaphor. Most Beatrices are built by their actresses to be great schooners, majestic Ships of the Line: fleet, fast, beautiful and dangerous, ready to hurl a broadside of words. They are women in command and in control. Bisselli’s creation is just as humorous and moving as all these others, but she relinquishes “in control” to examine her vulnerability, as Adam does. This Beatrice seems to suffer from some kind of witticism tourette syndrome; she cannot stop the pithy comments winging out of her mouth, sometimes to the most inappropriate of persons. Her only option is often to follow these faux paws with more sparkling barbs, their confidence only belied by the panic we see in her eyes. She is no schooner but one of the great Catamarans of antiquity: clawing its way across the uncharted ocean, plunging on and on into unknown danger, but keeping its pride and its pluck in spite of it all.

This is nicely underscored by Ott’s addition of a cross dressing element (if that isn't a fine Shakespearian tradition and a reasonable addition to the play I don’t know what is) a desire to be something more, that is eventually set aside as happiness and mutual need begins to unfold in her. Does that make a fiery love story? no, but it is a love story I’d pay money to see and chew upon for a long time after.

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