Something From Nothing
The Denver Center Theatre Company's Much Ado About Nothing boasts some beautifully staged scenes and well-crafted performances, especially actress Robin Moseley's bravura turn in the role of Beatrice. But while the visually pleasing production engages now and then, it adds up to considerably less than the sum of its parts. Cheap sight gags detract from the play's famously witty dialogue, and ponderous pauses dilute rather than inform meaning, making the show feel more like a wordy melodrama than a sparkling Shakespearean comedy.
Director Nagle Jackson has kept the play's original setting of Messina, Italy, but changed the time period to the year 1805. The updating allows for a more offhand style of acting, as well as an interesting variety of costume choices: Elizabethan-style rapiers, doublets and tights are replaced by ceremonial battle swords, braided uniforms and off-white trousers for the men; the women wear flowing gowns with formal lines but relaxed tone and texture. (Andrew V. Yelusich designed the costumes.) And Jackson eschews lute-and-flute interludes in favor of Lee Stametz's evocative piano compositions (based on the works of Irish composer John Field, the creator of the nocturne), played by a costumed, onstage pianist. As performed against a sumptuously lit backdrop dotted with cutout clouds, a setting of bleached-white, wide-planked platforms -- and, at one point, a collection of suspended lamps that look uncomfortably like the lighting aisle at Home Depot -- the production is certainly an eyeful. (Don Darnutzer fashioned the lighting; Vicki Smith designed the setting.)
Like all great plays, though, Much Ado succeeds only when the audience believes in and identifies with the characters. Happily, the play's notoriously problematic relationship -- that between the young Claudio and the woman he spurns at the altar, Hero -- comes off with nary a hitch. Christopher Kelly is both callow and passionate as the impetuous count, and somehow he manages to earn our sympathy rather than our disgust when, like a wounded animal, he questions Hero's honor. As his wronged fiancé, Morgan Hallett proves as courageous as she is winsome, rising through palpable heartbreak to furiously rebuff Claudio's charge. She also strikes up a warm relationship with Moseley's Beatrice and a fleeting, though crucial, one with her attendant, Margaret, adroitly played by Mayhill Fowler.
As the alternately hands-off and meddling "adults," actors Greg Thornton and John Innes lend artful dimension to their portraits of Don Pedro and Leonato. Mario Cabrera turns the typically serviceable role of the Friar into a powerhouse of conviction, making a suggested act of deception sound like the right and only choice. Bill Christ is an almost manic-depressive presence as Leonato's bastard brother, Don John, who sets about engineering his enemies' downfall by enlisting the help of two cohorts, Borachio and Conrade, capably played by Erik Tieze and Joshua Coomer. And Jason Tatom lends his portrait of Balthazar a few Pavarotti-like shades (including a ubiquitous handkerchief), while singing a couple of heartfelt ballads.
The production's finest portrayal, however, is undoubtedly Moseley's. She perfectly captures a side of Beatrice that most actresses either ignore or can't seem to locate: the "merry heart" ascribed to her by Don Pedro. When Beatrice remarks that her peculiar sense of humor can be traced to the fact that she was born under a dancing star, Moseley opens a window to Beatrice's soul that one rarely sees in other productions. And when the man she loves, Benedick, refers to her as a "harpy" and then stalks away, Moseley's following gaze lets us know that, no matter how much he's hurt her, she'll not return the favor just to get her way. Though seemingly inconsequential at first, Moseley's astute choices ultimately prove revelatory. Unfortunately, her relationship with Jamie Horton's Benedick -- the play's centerpiece -- never attains full flower. That's mostly because Horton attempts to mask the character's vulnerability by snarling and whining instead of assuming a protective shell of wit and charisma. When he finally confesses his love for Bea, he shouts and blusters to the point that it's hard to see why she finds him attractive -- he's simply loud and indifferent when expressing his feelings, not halting in romantically endearing ways.
Even more disappointing are the many low-comedy scenes that feature the bumbling constable, Dogberry, and members of the watch, that falter and fizzle throughout. In fact, the play's banquet of witticisms and posturing is too often reduced to a modest plate of one-liners and sight gags. And Jackson seems more interested in emphasizing quirky byways instead of using them to shape and accent larger elements: Constant -- and, after the first time, tiresome -- lightning strikes and thunderclaps greet Don John's every appearance; Dogberry's malaprop-laden scenes wind up getting drowned out by peripheral shtick, and the famous wooing scenes generate more bombast and mugging than sexual or emotional tension. The result is a loose collection of episodes -- some brilliant, some dull -- that, for the better part of three hours, never quite merge into a harmonic whole.
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