Ever see a production of a play that made you realize that every other interpretation you've seen before was wrong? Or, by comparison, not so good?
That's the instant reaction to Trinity Shakespeare Festival's Much Ado About Nothing, which is realized with such elegant charm and dexterous craft that it not only eclipses every staging of this romantic comedy I've seen, but it also beats every local attempt at any of Willy Shakes' plays in the past decade.
Directed by 30-year-old New York import Stephen Fried and set in the early 19th-century Regency period, this Much Ado isn't tricked out with concept or bogged down by a director attempting to imprint an egotistical stamp. It's simply the Bard's words, strikingly performed by a strong ensemble in an exceedingly handsome production. It's amazing the power Shakespeare can have when the focus is on the basics of character, plot and text. It's almost sad that such a straightforward approach seems novel nowadays.
The title slyly claims that this play is about nothing of import, but it's a deft study on contrasting approaches to love, and how communication and deceit can strengthen, alter and restrengthen its course. At the play's heart is the love story between young soldier Claudio (Justin Bryant Rapp) and the beautiful Hero (Kelsey Milbourn), daughter of Leonato (David Coffee), governor of Messina, Sicily. Their initial flirtation is practically wordless; they fall in love on first sight, expressing their feelings through body language, smiles and eye-twinkles.
Meanwhile, loud-mouthed Paduan lord Benedick (James Crawford) and Leonato's niece, the sharp-tongued harpy Beatrice (Trisha Miller), verbally spar with each other, as much for sport as for their disdain of the other. They each delight in having the last word. But, as we've learned from romantic comedy storylines in the four centuries since the play, that's a classic setup for the inevitable happily after ever. Forget absence, it's a "merry war" that makes the heart grow fonder.
Everything can't go smoothly, though. Don John (Brandon Sterrett) schemes to slander Hero by making her look impure to Claudio, who is so disgusted at what he thinks he has witnessed that he dumps her at their wedding. Those in the house of Leonato now have a mission to set the record straight, and Beatrice puts aside her selfish ways to focus on clearing her cousin's name. This play is also about the blood-thick love that bonds family.
Unraveling the conspiracy comes with the help of the outrageous malapropping constable Dogberry, riotously played by Richard Haratine with the same drunken-pirate speech and physicality that he effectively uses as the Gravedigger in Trinity Shakes' other production, Hamlet. (His cohorts in Much Ado, Curtis Shideler and Ned Record, are funny, too.)
In that less-successful show, Haratine and Coffee (as Polonius) steal the show from what needs to be the title character's time to shine. A major reason why Much Ado is exponentially better is that, as good as these two comic masters are, there's no limelight-theft here. The rest of the performances are that strong. They all get it.
Coffee, a connoisseur of comic line delivery, displays his skill with reigning in his bigness in the first half of Much Ado, and in the second, when Leonato has some of the show's most stirring dramatic speeches, Coffee nails those, too. His "doth not every earthly thing" monologue, delivered with profound sadness and guilt, is destined to become a high point of anyone's Shakespeare-going experience.
A performance like that can drown out the other players on any stage. But not here. Coffee doesn't strive for individual recognition. He's another puzzle-piece fitting in with other complex, jigsaw-cut pieces, striving for a complete picture. He doesn't so much raise the bar as he elevates everyone around him to it.
He certainly doesn't have to work to bring Crawford and Miller to his level. Beatrice can be as caustic as the Bard's more famous Shrew, Katharina. Miller, looking lovely in costumer Aaron Patrick Turner's Regency-era gowns, brings a wit and intelligence to her Beatrice that would make this character attractive to any human with a Y chromosome, even one who claims to laugh in the face of romance. After the big accusation against her cousin, Miller brings out the fiercely loyal side of Beatrice.
Crawford is a perfect mental dueling partner, a sophisticated leading man and commanding leader who finds the humor in Benedick's unlikely attraction to this woman of whom he publicly disapproves. But his Benedick knows when he has been bitten by the love bug. He eventually gives in, and despite the other characters' attempts to trick them into being together, there's always a sense that this Benedick and Beatrice would have figured it out anyway. Crawford, who is often deathly serious onstage, oozes charm with his sly expressions and crackerjack delivery.
As Hero and Claudio, the college-age Milbourn and Rapp deliver on the quick evolution from instant infatuation, the kind that makes one's skin hum, and on to genuine love, without saying much to express those feelings. But the lyrical prose they do speak—like everyone else in this cast, including Sterrett's villain and David Fluitt as Don Pedro—is spoken so naturally, it's as if the actors were reading from their own diaries.
Michael Heil's gorgeous set, of Leonato's two-story house with the courtyard and gazebo, sets another high bar for scenic design, raised up several notches from the beautiful designs of TSF's two shows in its 2009 debut, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night (Heil designed the latter, too). Turner's costumes are exquisitely tailored, which is not so easy to execute with the Regency-era pants on the men. And, like TSF's Hamlet, they are constructed of rich, textured fabric.
This year marks the second for TSF, and therefore the last with the generous two-year grant that Texas Christian University shelled out for this venture. The company will now how to depend on the same sources that fund the other arts groups in town. If last year's Twelfth Night and slightly less fabulous Romeo and Juliet proved that TSF was a new force to be reckoned with, this year's Much Ado makes a solid case that this group deserves bigtime financial and moral support.
►Much Ado About Nothing runs in rotating repertory with Hamlet. Much Ado is performed on June 17, 19, 20, 23, 25 and 27.