Here’s one reason I love going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. When I sat down Friday at the Angus Bowmer Theatre for the new season’s opening performance, I had, on my right, an Emmy-nominated screenwriter and playwright and, on my left, a gray-haired lady of a certain age who turned out to be a California cardiologist. Having come from some kind of party, she was wearing a flapper dress and black fishnet stockings, and laughed heartily when I suggested she should come back Sunday night in the same get-up to enjoy the opening of “Guys and Dolls.”
Friday’s show, though, was Shakespeare – and a favorite Shakespearean comedy at that, “Much Ado About Nothing.” The new production, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, kicked off opening weekend at OSF with an explosion of eye candy framing a pretty good show.
The set is so elegantly beautiful it threatens to overwhelm the actors. Thousands of pink and white roses hang in garlands from rigging above, making the Bowmer stage look rather like the Bellagio Conservatory in Las Vegas.
Interspersed among the roses are crystal chandeliers and, below on an Astroturf floor, we see a handful of straight chairs. That’s it for the set, for the whole play, and it works spectacularly. Kudos to scenic designer Scott Bradley.
To further heighten the visual impact, Blain-Cruz frequently uses her actors in tightly choreographed set pieces that are as much like dance as theater – marching soldiers, dancing couples, all looking like windup toys.
The main plot of “Much Ado” centers on the sharp repartee between Benedick, played here with broad, sweet comedy by Danforth Comins, and Beatrice, played rather sternly by Christiana Clark. They work well together as charmingly attractive opposites destined to fall in love.
It’s the secondary plot in “Much Ado” – the marriage of Claudio and Hero – that is so problematic. Their wedding, at the beginning of Act II, has to be one of the most difficult scenes to handle in all Shakespeare, because in the midst of what’s up to now been a witty, light comedy, we suddenly have a burst of incredible cruelty, as Claudio viciously shuns Hero, whom he has been told, wrongly, is unfaithful.
Dramatically, this is a tough sell, and this was the sole point for me at which the show fell apart, largely because Carlo Alban’s Claudio, who is a bit muddled on his own, has little chemistry with Leah Anderson’s Hero.
But that’s all redeemed by a wonderful touch at the end, when the newly married and mutually forgiven Hero and Claudio look at each other and then sit, separately, at opposite sides of the stage. They have, you might say, still got some work to do on the relationship.
Tyrone Wilson is great as Friar Francis, and Rex Young pays a millennial Dogberry, the fool of this show, running around the stage hilariously on a Segway. There is some gender bending in the smaller roles: Don John, who sets the evil plot in motion against Hero, is a woman here, played by Regan Linton, who uses a wheelchair with deft grace. And Verges, traditionally Dogberry’s assistant, has become his mother, the wonderful Eileen DeSandre.
The show is fast, beautiful and fun, making this “Much Ado” the perfect Shakespearean play for beginners, from high school (or even middle school) students to that friend of yours who has kind of always wanted to see a real play but didn’t know where to start. Bring them all.
Much Ado about Nothing
February 20 – November 1
Angus Bowmer Theatre
By William Shakespeare | Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz