‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at Annapolis Shakespeare Company by Amanda Gunther

FOUR AND A HALF STARS
Grab your beach towels and get ready for a sassy summer sizzler the likes you thought you could never experience with Shakespeare! Much Ado About Nothing slides into town for a limited three week engagement at The Bowie Playhouse as Annapolis Shakespeare Company takes the Bard’s most popular comedy back to the 1950s. Set at on an exotic island at The Messuna, a hotel run by Senor Leonato, there’s merriment to be had by all as the Prince and his company return for a brief holiday. In pressed white Naval uniforms the boys are bringing the heat, along with the talent to this exquisite production. Directed by Sally Boyett-D’Angelo, this show has all the glory of a swinging good 50’s night lounge with all the dancing and music too! A brilliant rendition of a wonderful comedy with impressive costumes, a stunning set, and sensational talent; this is show to keep your summer alive!

Benedick (Grayson Owen) and Beatrice (Chandish Nester).  Photo courtesy of Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Benedick (Grayson Owen) and Beatrice (Chandish Nester). Photo courtesy of Annapolis Shakespeare Company.

Scenic Designer Steven Royal takes Boyett-D’Angelo’s vision of a tropical hotel-lounge combo to new heights with his two-story rotating set column. Royal crafts a breathtaking and intricately detailed wrought iron two-tiered structure complete with a balcony that is the epitome of a resort from some tropical island in the sun. Complete with an enormous blinking red sign for the hotel’s name, Royal really centers the production in its location. Large palm-leaf silhouettes flank the sides and there’s even a slow-sinking crescent moon to spice up the romance of the night during those steamier scenes.

Costume Designer Maggie Cason has outdone herself in keeping with the style and color patterns of the 1950s while still allowing for the girls to toe the line of racy and demure all in one go. There are A-frame dresses aplenty with the slight crinoline poof beneath and lots of polka dot patterns. Cason sticks to the warmer colors, oranges and yellows with the occasional splash of sea foam green thrown in for good measure. The swimsuits match the era while keeping the ladies looking fabulous and you’ll simply swoon over how sharp Don Pedro and company look in their Naval Whites.

Director Sally Boyett-D’Angelo, working with Music Director Theresa Sweet Bouma, craft brilliant originality into their choice to set the show in the 1950s. Many shows when adapting Shakespeare to another era simply adjust the costumes and set design accordingly, however Boyett-D’Angelo and Bouma leave no stone unturned as they filter popular tunes from the decade into the scene changes and incorporate appropriate dances that bring a lively feel to the show. The speech patterns, coached by Bouma, deliver a sound very similar to the slow-talking smooth sound of the 1950s while still paying homage to the Bard’s carefully crafted meter.

Boyett-D’Angelo throws in a unique choice, making this production unlike anything you may have ever seen, by replacing Antonio with the ghost character of Innogen (Peg Nichols) Leonato’s wife. This intriguing choice sets up more of a family structure, paying tribute to the perfect cookie-cutter style families of the 1950s while upping the dynamic of the plot’s main action when Hero becomes slandered, because not only has she a father filled with shame, but now a mother as well. It makes classic lines like “…her mother hath many times told me so” (a line delivered by Leonato when questioned about whether or not Hero is his daughter) have a much more comic meaning as the audience is able to see the aforementioned mother’s response. Her work with the cast overall is sensational, showing a true understand of not only Shakespeare’s work but of the 1950s’ culture, from how they walk and talk to how they flirt and smoke their cigarettes.

(l to r) Don Pedro (Devion McArthur), Margaret (Chelsea Mayo), Borachio (Stephen Horst), Hero (Alyssa Bouma), Beatrice (Chandish Nester), and Claudio (Michael Ryan Neely). Photo courtesy of Annapolis Shakespeare Company.

(l to r) Don Pedro (Devion McArthur), Margaret (Chelsea Mayo), Borachio (Stephen Horst), Hero (Alyssa Bouma), Beatrice (Chandish Nester), and Claudio (Michael Ryan Neely). Photo courtesy of Annapolis Shakespeare Company.

Choreographer Ken Skrzesz keeps the cast on their toes with hoppin’ 50s dance routines that really add a flavorful aesthetic to the masquerade scene as well as the finale. The entire cast is having a jolly good time if the way their bodies are moving and the smiles on their faces are any indication. Skrzesz keeps the routines moderate but engaging, allowing for unity and well executed synchronization; a polished but fun-loving look that fits seamlessly into the flow of the show.

It’s the little touches that make this show impressive; the boy bouncing loudly on a squeaky pogo stick the morning after the big party, fueling Benedick’s raging hangover. And the crisply executed scene of pure shenanigans that occurs between the men and Benedick when they lay the trap for his love. The comic antics of this scene are the epitome of what this farcical scene are meant to represent and the responsive reactions and facial expressions of Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro are simply priceless. The same comic style routine that is played out in the girls’ scene goes a bit too far, pushing the line of over-the-top when Beatrice becomes entangled in the sheets trying to hide from Hero and Ursula. But overall the physical comedy executed in these two scenes is particularly tight.

With a madcap cast of characters this show is sure to delight your funny bone. Leading the charge, and the idiot brigade is the notable Dogberry (Alex Foley). Followed around by his blithering dunderhead companions Verges (Deryl Davis) and the watchman (Ben Lauer) Foley engages his body so fully physically that he’s a laugh-a-minute gut-busting scene stealer. Never will you more poignantly reminded that this character is indeed an ass! Foley’s folly leads to uproarious laughter from the audience as he barks like a general and makes quizzical facial expressions that make you laugh so hard you start to cry. A true master of comedy both physically and vocally, Foley nails the blustering buffoonery of Dogberry.

Of course we’d have no need for the neighborhood patrol, dressed aptly in this interpretation as boy scouts, without crooks to apprehend. Borachio (Stephen Horst) is the true villain in this production. While Don John (Eric Porter) gets the reputation of knave, it is Horst’s character that formulates the plot to undo Hero; the conniving brains behind the operation. Sly of tongue as he lays the plot thick, his unctuous presence is echoed in his physicality throughout the production; making him the epitome of deplorable villainy.

Where there’s bad guys there have to be good guys, the whole rest of the cast falling into the ‘side of the light’ category. But namely Don Pedro (Devion McArthur). Not without his handle on the comedic elements of his character, he sets the audience spinning with chuckles when he starts barking back at Dogberry, imitating with extreme exasperation Foley’s spastic movements. McArthur is a mild mannered yet versatile performer, lending his warmer side to moments of joy when there are happy moments to be had, while just as easily showing a rugged and fierce exterior when defending Claudio to Leonato.

One of the most ingenious moments of the production includes McArthur, along with Balthasar (Jonathan Jacobs) Claudio and Leonato as they start singing about how Beatrice loves Benedick. These four men become the epitome of a million dollar quartet, crooning away while swinging their hips with Jacobs in the lead and the other three singing doo-wop style backup. The only thing that makes this scene even more perfect than described is watching Benedick, high above on the balcony as he flips out in disgust and disbelief at their show blatant ardor and amour.

Leonato (Rob McQuay) is the epitome of a father figure in this production. Watch his facial expressions closely as he delivers a plethora of emotions that flawlessly match his vocal intonations throughout the production. Flipping with a flash from the proud papa to father scorned he has a wide range of emotional outbursts that stun the audience because of his sheer commanding presence on the stage.

All of those emotions come from matters related to his dear daughter Hero (Alyssa Bouma). Ever the innocent ingénue, Bouma is delightful to watch as she falls head-over-heels in love with Claudio (Michael Ryan Neely) only moments after meeting him. The chemistry that floats between the two of them is pure divinity; lovestruck and smitten beyond a shadow of a doubt. But Bouma proves she’s more than just shy ingénue, the moment of her breakdown in the chapel written plain on her face breaking your heart. She even has a slightly sassy side as she nervously prepares to go to church.

Neely as the young Claudio is a sensational performer. Grounded in the reality of love he is at first tight-lipped and reserved until he gives in full force and becomes swept up in its magic. His stunning break from this charming prince-like character is truly shocking as he delves into the pits of anger, tersely spitting slander through clenched teeth with a fury that seeps into each word. Watching the way he physically responds to the news of his wrong-doing is jaw-dropping; the wave of emotions that crashes over him making him look as if he is about to literally be ill; these extreme expressions and responses are the mark of a well trained performer.

The stars of the show, Beatrice (Chandish Nester) and Benedick (Grayson Owen) are nothing short of phenomenal performers. They play their bickering scenes physically close to one another, adding a layer of unresolved sexual tension that burbles beneath the surface. Nester is awash with a passionate discontent toward men and makes no bones about this fact being known. Her frigid nature is highly entertaining, particularly when barbing with Benedick and she does the character a great justice. Their scene in guise during the masquerade is one of the funniest in the production.

Owen crafts Benedick with a haughty disposition, an irreverent opinion on women and an overall brilliant presence on stage. Watching his transformation from bachelor extraordinaire to a simpering simpleton caught up in the tornado of love is a riotous unforgettable moment. He goes from staunchly against the idea, through a series of hilarious physical exasperations to stupid cupid that’s been struck by a grenade of love, leaving him twisting about like a giddy fool. The most versatile performer among a cast of versatile talent, Owen steals your heart with his cheeky attitude and overall flirtations with Beatrice; a right perfect man if ever there was one for the role.

(l to r) Claudio (Michael Ryan Neely) Benedick (Grayson Owen) Beatrice (Chandish Nester) and Hero (Alyssa Bouma). Photo courtesy of Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre Company.

(l to r) Claudio (Michael Ryan Neely) Benedick (Grayson Owen) Beatrice (Chandish Nester), and Hero (Alyssa Bouma). Photo courtesy of Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre Company.

This is one Shakespearean comedy you will not want to miss, no doubt about it; the freshest and most inspired idea to hit the Bard in quite some time! So come take a night off, get down to Annapolis Shakespeare Company at The Bowie Playhouse, and enjoy Much Ado About Nothing, before it’s all over.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

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Much Ado About Nothing plays through August 18, 2013 at Annapolis Shakespeare Company performing at The Bowie Playhouse — 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.

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