By Joseph Geha
By Jonathan Kiefer
By Katie Tandy
By Mollie McWilliams
By Jennifer Baires
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
Benedick and Beatrice, W.H. Auden said, "are the characters of Shakespeare's we'd most like to sit next to at dinner." They're the unintended focus of Much Ado About Nothing -- unintended because they're technically minor characters who add sharp-witted commentary to the stilted love story between Claudio and Hero. But no one remembers Claudio or Hero. No one wants to sit next to them at dinner.
Through Oct. 5
Tickets are $24-49
Peter DuBois' directing debut at the California Shakespeare Theater is a light, summery affair, with girls in flowing dresses stepping around a flowered pool of water, men in Desert Storm cammies, live statues in the arbor, and high pedestals of giant calla lilies. DuBois serves as artistic director of Perseverance Theater, in Juneau, Alaska, but he seems right at home with the sunny ebullience that is Cal Shakes' signature style.
The production isn't awfully tight; it spills over in every direction (especially Meg Neville's unruly costumes), but the acting is strong and high-spirited. Charles Shaw Robinson does terrific work as Benedick, the soldier returned from a recent war to the placid city of Messina. Benedick maintains his soldier's wit by criticizing every former brother-in-arms who goes mooning after some woman; he also bickers merrily with Beatrice, a woman he fell for once but now despises. If he ever looks pale for love, Benedick says, "Pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker's pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid." Robinson plays Benedick as game for anything, jeering and superior until he falls (inevitably) back in love with Beatrice -- and then Robinson's mooniness and awkward fumbling are just as truthfully pitched.
Beatrice hates men at least as much as Benedick hates women. "Truly I love none," Benedick insists, and Beatrice answers, "A dear happiness to women. ... I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me." Julie Eccles plays her with confidence but not enough satirical punch. Her delivery is strong and professional; she's lean and sassy; and yet something's missing. I suspect Eccles is not naturally fork-tongued enough to electrify every one of Beatrice's slurs. "She speaks daggers," complains Benedick. "Every word stabs." Yes, yes -- but not quite.
The main story, the "ado about nothing," deals with Benedick's friend Claudio and the princess he falls in love with, Hero. A pair of malevolent ex-soldiers concocts a scam to ruin their wedding by slandering Hero's virtue. Two young actors, Myla Balugay and Joaquin Torres, play Hero and Claudio; they're both competent but wan next to Benedick and Beatrice, which I guess is better than upstaging them. Opening-night reports had Balugay stumbling over Hero's tantrum, after Claudio questions her virginity at the altar, but this vital scene was corrected by the time I saw it a few nights later. Balugay put real feeling into Hero's shock and collapse.
Shoring up the production are performances by James Carpenter and L. Peter Callender, as Don Pedro and Hero's father Leonato, respectively. Don Pedro is a prince who's just served as general to Benedick and Claudio. He's older than his soldiers, but still good-humored, and he conspires with Leonato to fool Benedick into wooing Beatrice. This scene, along with its mirror image -- in which Beatrice gets tricked into believing Benedick loves her -- is the comic heart of the play, and Callender and Carpenter are the main reasons it works. They're gleeful and tricky, acting thick as thieves, pretending to whisper (loud enough so Benedick can hear) invented stories about Beatrice's symptoms of love. Callender also fills out Leonato's character beautifully as the glad-handing, credulous governor of Messina, and as the outraged father when Hero takes a fall.
The costumes make little sense: Neville and DuBois try to highlight contrasts between the characters without fusing the costumes into a coherent whole. At the start we have the soldiers wandering around like Army regulars in Iraq, except for Don Pedro, who looks like a Special Forces officer just parachuted in. Leonato might be the mayor of some Cuban resort town, in his Panama hat and silk shirt, and the women seem to have escaped from a summer wedding in the Hamptons. The cynical villains -- Don John and Borachio -- wear jungle camouflage and bandannas, like Nicaraguan guerrillas, while the comical deputies running after them, Dogberry and Verges, wear silly helmets and sunglasses belonging to no particular time or place.
Dogberry and Verges, though, are hilariously performed by Ron Campbell and Joan Mankin. Campbell plays Dogberry as a tall, stiff oaf who keeps injuring himself with overzealous swipes of his police baton, and Mankin is his even clumsier, dwarfish partner. Their best routines would fit right into a new version of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, which emphasizes the fact that the best part of this show -- even more than DuBois' fertile imagination -- is the strength and depth of the acting. There are not just two but a whole room full of characters here I would gladly sit next to at dinner.