Thursday, 15 June 2017

Much Ado is rich silly rom-com froth @ Bard
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & 
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  Trickery. Knavery. Mistaken identity. Scheming. Masques and miscues. All elements of both live theatre and film-making. Such stuff informs the set, lit.-&-fig, for Bard on the Beach's premiere 2017 production of Much Ado About Nothing.

The characters of Benedick and Beatrice are two of the Bard's favourite lovers. Their sarcastic thrusts & parries back & forth seem tailor-made for 20th Century Fox's Liz and her twice-to-be hubby Dick, he of Eddie Fisher cuckold fame back in the time of Cleopatra.

But eight-season Bard vet John Murphy mounts the current set not in Hollywood, rather in Frederico Fellini's world of 1950 Rome instead : all the Billy Bard characters Murphy directs are filmmakers, studio chiefs, actors and assorted hangers-on in a mock-up mime of Marcello Mastroianni's celluloid La Dolce Vita.

Benedick (Kevin MacDonald) spins filmmaker Don Pedro (Ian Butcher) an arty tale or two.
Photo : David Blue    Image Design : Jason Keel
How it's all put together : Meanwhile Wiki tells us that "nothing", in Shakespeare's time, was a near homonym for "noting", which meant to overhear plus gossip plus rumour as well as "to take note of". And so it is with MAAN : a mostly comic romance with hints of Iago-style evil as well as countless references to horns & cozening & chicanery that Shakespeare loved to tittle his Elizabethan fans with. To make "much ado" about romantic love that is nothing if not paradox. E.g. how prescient and wise that church vows mention "for better" only a wee breath away from "for worse".

So here we have Leonato (Andrew Wheeler) as a film studio head. His headstrong niece Beatrice (Amber Lewis) loves to snipe at the famous actor Benedick (Kevin MacDonald) who has arrived in town with filmmaker Don Pedro (Ian Butcher) and rising star Claudio (Julien Galipeau). Claudio is instantly smitten with Leonato's daughter Hero (Parmiss Sehat). But Don Pedro's sister Dona Johnna (Lara Sadiq) hates her brother and sheerly-for-sibling-spite sets chins to wagging with doubts about Hero's virginity. The Claudio-Hero nuptials collapse. A funeral ensues. At least for awhile. Lest it be Much Ado About Something.

Beatrice (Amber Lewis), Hero (Parmiss Sehat) & Margaret (Kaitlin Williams) share disbelief at what Hero's betrothed Claudio reveals as their wedding starts.  Photo : David Blue    Image Design : Jason Keel
Production values that shine through : Shakespeare's often "ambiguous gender" characterizations may have been borne of his all-male-only casts. Or he was 400 years ahead of current feminism. In MAAN, Beatrice constantly cries how she yearns to be a man and teach that gender a thing or two about toughness and taking charge.

Other familiar tropes of the Bard present themselves, too. Lear's suffocating snit at daughter Cordelia had fatal consequences family-wide : all died. So Leonato's rant after her canceled wedding ceremony is nowhere near equal. Still, instantly he forsakes Hero over murmers of her "foul, tainted flesh" fed him by Claudio. And says with all the force of Lear, though, happily, not the same result : "Hence, let her die!" This is where suspending disbelief comes in handy with WS.

For his part, W. H. Auden in a 1946 lecture is reported to have said of Benedick and Beatrice : "They are the characters of Shakespeare we'd most like to sit next to at dinner." Hmnnn. For me it would be identical to the choice of sitting next to Frank and Claire Underwood of House of Cards fame : to her, assuredly, to him not as eagerly so.  Beatrice's smart put-downs & quips remind me of facing nightly dinner table conversations with a Phi Beta Kappa mom + three National Honor Society older sisters at home in the 50's.

The fun WS intended is grasped by Director Murphy and his choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg admirably. Playful blocking on an imagined movie sound stage -- minimalist scenery and props but maximum pirouettes and playground whirligig as the cast moves the stage stuff whimsically & spontaneously & purposefully all about. Costumes by Christine Reimer were striking : black-&-white like a Fellini movie of yore until the prospect of love, marriage and sex take more serious hold in the script. Then lots of sporty colours on jaunty casual bistro-type threads.

Acting pin-spots :  This show is about Beatrice and Benedick.  Amber Lewis as Beatrice quite grabbed the limelight as between the two with her waspish gibes and taunts throughout. But Kevin MacDonald as Benedick had his own charming zingers, too : "Thou and I are too wise to love peaceably," he suggests at the end. A portent, not doubt, of their future.

The "early Iago" treachery of Dona Johnna is rightly, I think, given almost flip treatment by the director. (Have to say I did find Laara Sadiq somewhat shrill and shouty and not altogether easy on the ears.)

As Leonato's brother Antonio, David M. Adams had numerous choice moments, while Ashley O'Connell's Constable Dogberry was precisely the malapropist delight WS designed. His repeated "He called me an ass!" protestations to Leonato were choice.

Playing Margaret, Kaitlin Williams' cheeky ironic call-out & flirtation with Benedick in Act 2 was choice & cheery character control + delivery. Brava! for an utterly fun bit. 

David M. Adams (Antonio) leads the troupe in a bit of Hey! Nonny, nonny shots at men's inherent peccadilloes & shortcomings that was fun indeed.     Photo : David Blue   Image Design : Jason Keel
Who gonna like : One critic I read gushed that MAAN is his favourite of all favourite Billy Bard scripts. Personally I find Merry Wives more consistently funny and without the faux-Iago piece that interjects an anger & solemnity into the silly goings-on that others, too, might find a bit jarring and off-stride.

But the casting of this show was smart and mostly spot-on. That,  coupled with choreography that is catchy, there's a spare minimalist set of klieg lights, muffled boom mic and garden trellis the main features. With all the projected movie posters behind, it's visually another Winner! for Bard.  MAAN lives up to its title for sure, and it drew vigorous and deserved applause, cheers & whistles at its blustery, Juneuary ON tonight.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Christopher Gaze Artistic Director. At the BMO mainstage tent, Vanier Park. Performances : 65 shows between now and September 23rd closing night. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.orgRun-time 2 hours, 40 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director John Murphy. Costume Designer Christine Reimer.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director  Josh Reynolds.  Composer / Sound Designer Murray Price.  Projection Designer Corwin Ferguson.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill. Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Directing Apprentice Nicole Anthony.  Directing Apprentice Toby Berner.

Performers :  David M. Adams (Antonio / Seacoal).  Lois Anderson (Ursula, Sexton : June 1 - Aug. 6).  Ian Butcher (Don Pedro).  Chris Cochrane (Verges, Friar, Messenger, Gravekeeper).  Austin Eckert (Hugh Oatcake, Page).  Ben Elliott (Borachio, musician).  Julian Galipeau (Claudio).  Amber Lewis (Beatrice).  Jennifer Lines (Ursula, Sexton : August 8 - Sept. 23).  Kevin MacDonald (Bennedick).  Serana Malani (Conrade).  Ashley O'Connell (Dogberry).  Laara Sadiq (Dona Johnna).  Parmiss Sehat (Hero).  Andrew Wheeler (Leonato).  Kaitlin Williams (Margaret). 


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