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Review: OSF keeps the comedy afloat in 'Much Ado'

The best productions of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” use broad physical comedy along with all the dialogue’s verbal fireworks to truly succeed. The laughter has to keep coming. Without it, the plot-turning dark elements of the play — a false accusation and a feigned death — are irreversible downers and the comedy would fall flat.

The latest production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that opened Friday night in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bowmer Theatre maintains that delicate balance even with a couple of false steps. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s sparkling comedy scenes keep the serious ones from dragging down the overall bantering mood of the play.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is set in a make-believe kingdom of Messina, presided over by the magnanimous Leonato (Jack Willis). A troop of soldiers arrives, led by Leonato’s old friend Don Pedro (Cristofer Jean), and Leonato offers them all a month of downtime in the kingdom before they return home. Soon, Don Pedro’s right-hand man, the witty and marriage-adverse Benedick (Danforth Comins), is trading verbal barbs with Leonato’s niece, the equally marriage-adverse Beatrice (Christiana Clark). Another of Don Pedro’s aides, the impetuous Claudio (Carlo Albán), falls in love with Leonato’s lovely daughter, Hero (Leah Anderson).

But Don Pedro’s retinue also includes his evil half-brother Don John (here his evil half-sister with the casting of Regan Linton). Don John is a self-proclaimed born troublemaker — a “plain-dealing villain.” Out of pure malice, Don John fashions a ruse to make Claudio and Don Pedro think they see Hero trysting with another man. Claudio proceeds to denounce Hero at their wedding.

All is quickly sorted out, of course, and the play ends with Claudio and Hero married and Beatrice and Benedick declaring their love.

In Shakespeare’s comedy, the somber mood of Don John’s betrayal, Claudio’s rejection of Hero and her father’s revenge is all but buried by the comic scenes designed to reveal Don John’s perfidy.

The language-challenged Constable Dogberry (Rex Young, here zipping about the stage on a Segway as he drops his malapropisms), his inept watchmen who overhear Don John’s henchmen discussing the crime, and the equally malaprop interrogation of the perpetrators offer a swift, hilarious and almost offhand resolution to the “noble” characters’ dilemma.

In the play’s “eavesdropping scenes,” Blain-Cruz has Clark and Comins rolling, crawling and mugging across the Bowmer’s stage. Both actors have the physicality and the comedic timing to bring this off and Blain-Cruz plays this for all it's worth.

Blain-Cruz’s concept for the play’s initially joyful plotline works remarkably well. It is a full Mediterranean summer in her Messina, with scenic designer Scott Bradley’s minimal set of elegant chairs, a green turf covering the stage and a truly breathtaking curtain of hanging garlands of roses. Lighting designer Yi Zhao provides brilliant sunshine.

The production’s playful mood abruptly changes, however, when Claudio denounces Hero. That ethereal rose garland curtain falls with a thud and the lighting abruptly shifts from sunny to bleak.

All the comic relief of Dogberry and company (including the welcome return of Eileen DeSandre to OSF, playing Verges as Dogberry’s aged mother) and the ultimate joyful reunion of both couples, takes place on a stage with those fallen garlands ominously piled up in the corner. It’s a bit of a drag. It is as though director Blain-Cruz wanted to keep that dark element a constant through to the play’s positively giddy conclusion.

Blain-Cruz has made Don John more like an Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD than Shakespeare’s uncomplicated, virtually mustache-twirling villain.

It is a false step in an otherwise sunny, ebullient production. Blain-Cruz’s gift for directing deftly timed physical comedy and Shakespeare’s sparkling text overcome the director’s suggested subtext. The initial mood of that rose garland curtain prevails.

It’s hard to ruin a really good party.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.