Monday, February 8, 2016

Much Ado About Nothing—Twilight Theater Company—N. Portland


Claudio (L) and Beatrice (R), played by Levi Ruiz and
Taylor Jean
Photography credit:  Garry Bastian of Garry Bastian Photography
Deception—Texas-Style

This classic comedy by Shakespeare is directed by Sue Harris and is playing at their space, 7515 N. Brandon (parking across the street in the church parking lot), through February 27th.  For more information, go to their site at www.twilighttheatercompany.org or call 503-847-9838.

The Bard’s musings have taken on many locales and time periods over the years since he conceived his plays.  Of course, he essentially lifted his stories from other sources, so I guess it’s only fair we transpose them as well.  His characters have been incarnated into New Orleans, Haiti, the hippie era of the 60’s, post-desert storm, Alaska, et. al. and now, Messina, Texas.  The setting that is rarely done is to place it in his time and space, with audiences sitting on the edges of the stages, laughing and asking questions of the actors, drinking their brews and tossing chicken bones around, females onstage being played by boys, and vendors hawking their wares during the performance.  But that was then…this is now.

The setting this time, as mentioned, is Messina, Texas.  So we find the Prince, Don Pedro (Benjamin Philip), coming back from the wars with two of his most eligible bachelors, Benedick (JJ Harris) and Claudio (Levi Ruiz), looking for mates.  They find them in Beatrice (Taylor Jean Grady), daughter of Antonio (Aaron Crosby); and the Governor, Leonato (Aaron Morrow), in his daughter, Hero (Alicia Hueni).  Hero is easily won over by Claudio, but Beatrice is a kissing cousin to Kate, the shrew, from another of the Bard’s works.  And he, Benedick, is equally stubborn and pig-headed.

So family, and servants, including Ursula (Tate Kuhn) and Margaret (Tabitha Ebert), serving maids to the ladies, conspire to get these two lovers together.  Meanwhile, back at the manor, we have a disgruntled Don John (Mark Putnam), brother to Don Pedro, desiring Hero for himself.  So he, and his mates, Borachio (Ilana Watson) and Conrade (Russell Owens), devise a method of smearing Hero’s reputation, giving the inference that she is not a maiden.  Obviously, Claudio is not pleased and so has his own devices for dealing with such treachery before the Preacher (Doug Jacobs). 

Meanwhile, on the home front, the intrepid Dogberry (Tom Witherspoon), the constable, and his band of merry minions, Verges (Bobby Nove), Seacole (Belanna Winborne) and Otecake (Amelia Harris) have captured Don John’s underlings and they confess to concocting the whole plot before a Judge (Mary Winborne).  More I cannot tell you but, this being mostly a comedy, things have a way of working out for all concerned.

Motivations of villainy are one thing that is never very clear in Mr. S’s plays.  Why is Oberon so irate about Titania taking in a changeling boy; why is Iago really so hateful toward Othello; and why is Don John so mean to his brother and Claudio?  Jealousy seems to be a key factor but to really go to such extremes…but, then again, there would be no play without these crucial elements.  Contrivance is usually something that is in most plots…in other words, if something doesn’t happen in a certain way, then the story falls apart.  And so, bowing to this device, Don John must concoct his scheme so that we have a play.

It is gratifying to see that Harris has assembled this many people to deliver Shakespeare’s words and, for the most part, they do reasonably well.  Part of the success of this, is that she has them speak in a conversational way, which makes all the difference.  I learned Conversational Shakespeare from Dr. Bowmer (Founder of OSF in Ashland) and Richard Fancy from NYC.  It is the “new” Shakespeare onstage.  Therefore, one should not fear not understanding the story just because it happens to be by the Bard.

Harris has kept her set simple, allowing the actors and some minor set or props changes, to broadcast the setting.  And her cast handles it well, keeping in mind that community theatre is good training ground for this Art.  One basic thing, though, that should be cleared up before performing the show for an audience, is that actors should not look out at the audience (unless it is an aside) or doing bits of business that distracts from where the main focus of the scene should be.  A couple of her actors have not yet learned that.  But, after all, it was opening night, so I trust this will be cleaned up for future performances.

JJ Harris and Grady were quite good as the two mismatched lovers.  They both had a command of the language and played off each other well.  Morrow gave it his all when playing the anguished father.  Nove has a real knack for comedy in the roles he played.  Jacobs does a nice turn in the small role of the Preacher.  And Philip is very adept as the “leader of the pack.”  He has a good stage presence and seems very comfortable with the language.

But a nice surprise is Hueni as the young, Hero.  These roles are usually considered lightweight and seem to have little more to do than being a naïve victim.  But she doesn’t allow herself to fall into that trap and holds her own on the stage.  She is an attractive lady, so fits the role physically, but she also has an assuredness as to her character and a focus as an actor that raises the bar on playing what is usually a “throw-away” role.  I hope to see more of her onstage.

I recommend this play.  If you do see it, please tell them that Dennis sent you.