October 31, 2014

Matching Wits at Theatricum’s Much Ado About Nothing

 

By Millicent Borges Accardi

PHOTO BY IAN FLANDERS

Matching Wits at Theatricum’s <i>Much Ado About Nothing</i>

Robertson Dean as Benedick and Susan Angelo as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the Theatricum Botanicum running now through Sept. 28

“Shakespeare had an extraordinary understanding of the business of being human,” explains Ellen Geer who co-directs this summer’s performance of Much Ado about Nothing with daughter Willow Geer at Topanga’s open-air canyon amphitheater, the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

Much Ado matches characters Beatrice and Benedick, throwing barbs and calculated insults upon each other in a delightful and complicated game of cat and mouse. It is a battle royal of the sexes, all the while each secretly harboring romantic feelings. Barbs are witty and sharp and cut to the quick. Benedick is the intellectual version of a school boy who taunts a female classmate in fourth grade because he “likes” her, while Beatrice delights in her clever wounds and in besting her mutual sparring opponent.

This romantic comedy has all the usual suspects: true love, verbal barbs, a faked death, soldiers, weddings and a multitude of Shakespearean twists and turns. The Theatricum’s “garden of theater” envelops this lively show within its walls, creating a new sense of reality with nature playing a primary role in this sparsely decorated stage. There is a fountain, a small table and pots of flowers randomly placed to create a simple courtyard, reception area or interior living space. Yet, it is the actors who are the focus with the barbs, the witticisms, the jokes. The main action of the play happens over several days, during a visit by Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, and his followers to the large estate of Leonato, the Governor of Messina. There are two sets of potential lovers: Hero (the governor’s only daughter) and Claudio (soldier) and Beatrice (the governor’s niece) and Benedick.

PHOTO BY IAN FLANDERS

Matching Wits at Theatricum’s <i>Much Ado About Nothing</i>

From left, Colin Simon as Claudio; Robertson Dean as Benedick; Jeff Wiesen as Don Pedro and Franc Ross as Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing.

As the soldiers return from war, Leonato (played by Franc Ross) remarks “There is a kind of merry war between Signor Benedick and her,” alluding to the adversarial relationship between the two longtime acquaintances. When Beatrice hears of the return of Benedick, the battle of the sexes begins with her declaration “He is no more than a stuffed man!” and Leonato exclaims, “[Beatrice] mocks all her suitors so severely that they drop the suit.”Susan Angelo stars brilliantly as Beatrice as does Robertson Dean as a thoughtful Benedick. Both actors put in intense, spirited performances, albeit a little more formal than necessary because truly these two characters should delight in their banter. Perhaps, as the actors grow into their roles, they will loosen up and become as playful as the play dictates. The more seasoned actors in the company shine: Jeff Wiesen as Don Pedro and his illegitimate brother Don John (Mark Lewis), who is darkly sarcastic and absolutely wonderful. Ursula, played by Taylor Jackson Ross, excels with her articulation of each line (she is an actor to watch, who wrestles with and captures every available nuance).

The police crew, a Shakespearean version of Neighborhood Watch, led by Dogberry (Tim Halligan) and Verges (Gerry Mullins) absolutely steals the show. So comfortable in his part is Halligan that one cannot separate the role of Dogberry from the man who portrays him. He is a joy to watch. The hijinks, gestures and physical comedy of the watch crew are hilarious and greatly appreciated by the audience on opening night: First Watchman (Frank Weider) and Second Watchman (Edward Gallogy) add to the fun. However, one of the most captivating and curiously seductive scenes occurs not between lovers Hero (Jackie Kiikvee) and Claudio (Colin Simon) or Benedick and Beatrice, but between Don John (Mark Lewis) and his associate Borachio (Seta Alexander), who are hypnotic to watch at the edge of the stage as they are drawn into their own mini-plot of evil. The lesson learned amid all the fun of Much Ado about Nothing is, as director Ellen Geer says, “The dark, the bliss, the confusion, the hurt and the love of it all…the damage that gossip and jealousy can do.”

In honor of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, the Theatricum is producing an all-Shakespeare lineup for the summer season: its annual tradition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with Lear, All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing and Equivocation by Bill Cain, a play which poses the question: what if the government had commissioned Shakespeare to write about the Gunpowder Plot?

Much Ado About Nothing continues through Sept. 28. Tickets: Adults: $37 (lower tier) and $25 (upper tier); Seniors (60+), Students, Military Veterans, AEA Members: $25/$15; Children (7-12): $10; Children 6 and under: free. A preshow interactive discussion “Prologue” with cast and crew will be held August 9 at 6:30 p.m. British Pub Grub pre-show dinners will be offered August 15 and 22 for a separate dinner and a show admission.

­For a complete schedule of performances and to purchase tickets: (310) 455-3723; or theatricum.com; Like on Facebook: www.facebook.com/theatricum; or follow on Twitter @theatricum.

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd. in Topanga, halfway between PCH and the San Fernando Valley.

The outdoor amphitheater is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evening performances) and to bring blankets as needed. Bring pillows or cushions for the bench seating. Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut and picnickers are welcome before and after the shows. There will be one 10-minute intermission during this performance.

Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of three poetry books and recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, and the California Arts Council. She organizes the reading series Kale Soup for the Soul: Portuguese-American writers reading work about family, food and culture. Follow her @TopangaHippie.