Much Ado About Nothing, Cal Shakes

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
California Shakespeare Theater
Orinda, Calif.
Sept. 22-Oct. 17, 2010

Andy Murray (on floor), Nick Childress (with sword) and Nicholas Pelczar (in hat)
in Cal Shakes’ “Much Ado About Nothing”
Photo by Jay Yamada

What it loses in elegance, it may gain in accessibility. Jonathan Moscone’s earthy, raunchy, down-and-dirty “Much Ado About Nothing” at Cal Shakes is the kind of screwball comedy that cries out for Rosalind Russell as Beatrice, Humphrey Bogart as Benedick and, perhaps, Vincent Price as the villain, Don John. As those guys (if anybody out there remembers who they were in the first place) are no longer with us, we have Domenique Lozano, Andy Murray and Danny Scheie in the roles and they’re pretty darn good. Scheie, an accomplished comedian plays the bad guy for laughs – kind of a mistake – but he returns to shine in Act II as Dogberry, the word-mangling police official who, in spite of himself, sets things to rights after they have become hopelessly messed up.

The play, one of Shakespeare’s most popular, is set in Sicily, beautifully represented on CalShakes’ Orinda outdoor stage by Daniel Ostling’s autumnal patio, strewn with colorful pots of flowers and complete with a tiled pool that is used to advantage several times during the action. And autumnal is more than a word here. It’s a concept that drives Moscone’s interpretation. Lozano and Murray are not young lovers. She is a spinster past her prime, (accentuated by one of the most unattractive gowns seen lately on a stage —  courtesy of designer Christal Weatherly) who hides her despair of ever hooking up behind a barrier of clever words. He is a crusty soldier, seemingly devoted to bachelorhood, his armor of macho nonchalance shielding a vulnerability and downright decency that is seldom shown. Out of old habit, the two engage in a battle of wits that neither can win. Each tricked by their friends into believing that the other is in love with them, they fall in love in earnest and thereby hangs the tale.

It’s all pretty funny and a little bit poignant, but it is not young love, which is represented by Hero (Emily Kitchens) and Claudio (Nick Childress). She is blithe and giddy when being wooed and properly devastated when, through the villain’s perfidy, she is painted as unfaithful and left at the altar. He is simply a dumb kid who will believe anything anybody tells him. Childress is the weakest link in an otherwise-strong cast. His kindly mentor, Don Pedro (Nicholas Pelczar) is a prince and a prince of a fellow to boot. But his bastard brother (Scheie) is “a plain-dealing villain” by his own admission. That Sheie plays him with a wink and a leer does little service to the character or the play, but it matches the broad comic brush Moscone has used to paint his canvas.

Dan Hiatt does his accustomed nice-guy thing as Hero’s father, Leonato, and Andrew Hurteau is exceptional as the Friar, indignant at Hero’s betrayal and staunch in her defense, yet not so holy that he doesn’t flirt with a servant girl at a masked ball. Delia MacDougall is the pert maid Margaret, and Catherine Castellanos doubles as the servant Ursula (whose lines seem to have been cut drastically) and the captain of the watch.

Shakespeare employs here the themes of jealousy and duplicity that will later surface in a deadly serious vein in “Othello” and the faked death that had such tragic results in “Romeo and Juliet.” But as the songwriter said, “Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight,” and director Moscone wrings every laugh he can out of “Much Ado,” lacing it with pratfalls, lots of bottom pinching and the truly hilarious malapropisms of Sheie’s Dogberry. If you want to see a more elegant performance of this play, go rent the gorgeous Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson 1993 DVD. On the other hand, if you like your comedy a little on the rough side, Moscone’s version may be the one to see.

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