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Rox twist on Bard sets ‘Much Ado’ post-WWII

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Rox twist on Bard sets ‘Much Ado’ post-WWII
Margaret (left, played by Bobbie Steinbach) and Hero (center, played by Kami Rushell Smith) whisper to one another as Beatrice (played by Paula Plum) listens in this advance promotional photo from the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” heading into the final weekend of its run at the Roxbury Center for Arts at Hibernian Hall. While the setting, time period, dress and other elements of this staging differ from the original, the play remains faithful to its subjects: human folly in love, and how deceiving appearances can be. (Photo: Stratton McCrady)

Author: Stratton McCradyMargaret (left, played by Bobbie Steinbach) and Hero (center, played by Kami Rushell Smith) whisper to one another as Beatrice (played by Paula Plum) listens in this advance promotional photo from the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” heading into the final weekend of its run at the Roxbury Center for Arts at Hibernian Hall. While the setting, time period, dress and other elements of this staging differ from the original, the play remains faithful to its subjects: human folly in love, and how deceiving appearances can be.

Author: Stratton McCradyMargaret (left, played by Bobbie Steinbach) and Hero (center, played by Kami Rushell Smith) whisper to one another as Beatrice (played by Paula Plum) listens in this advance promotional photo from the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” heading into the final weekend of its run at the Roxbury Center for Arts at Hibernian Hall. While the setting, time period, dress and other elements of this staging differ from the original, the play remains faithful to its subjects: human folly in love, and how deceiving appearances can be.

A man plays a plaintive saxophone solo while a woman under soft light listens in the background, the large white flower behind her ear evoking Lady Day’s gardenia. Although the scene conjures a duet between Lester Young and Billie Holiday, the two are Don Claudio and Hero, the young lovers in William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Such jazz-inflected moments inject shading and depth into the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s (ASP) infectious but hyperkinetic production of the romantic comedy, playing through Sunday, June 14, at the Roxbury Center for Arts.

Directed and designed by ASP Artistic Director Benjamin Evett, the production transfers “Much Ado” from 17th-century Messina, Sicily, to a post-war ’50s America. The setting resembles a party on a cruise ship. Faithful to the subject of the play — human folly in love — this is a ship of fools, traveling through a tale that explores how hearsay and appearances can mislead even the wisest of men and women.

Making the most of the two-story ballroom at the center in the handsomely renovated Hibernian Hall, the set is simply open floor space encircled by the audience, who sit at round tables, cabaret-style. The set consists of three linen-covered tables festooned with balloons, party hats, flower-filled vases and bottles of champagne that later become handy props for body parts, disguises and hiding places.

In this artfully pared-down production, live trumpet solos suggest the bittersweet current within the play’s slapstick scenes, melodramatic moments and verbal battle of the sexes. (The original play’s musician Balthazar is distilled here into a nonspeaking trumpeter, played by either Giselle Ty or David Oluwadara, depending on the performance date.)

En route home after military victory, Don Pedro and his men visit Leonato, the governor of Messina, played regally by Johnny Lee Davenport. Leonato’s home becomes a place of transformation where, through a series of ruses and counter-ruses, an old liaison is rekindled and a new one consummated.

As the visitors arrive, their messenger tells Leonato, his daughter, Hero, and his niece, Beatrice, of the young officer Claudio, admired for “doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.”

The first words that Beatrice speaks are to ask about another officer, Benedick. But as soon as she hears of his feats, she makes a disdainful comment about him. Leonato explains to the puzzled messenger, “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

The play as a whole is a game of decoy. It seems to be about Hero and Claudio, who instantly fall in love. The gifted Kami Rushell Smith, a 2009 graduate of the Boston Conservatory with a master’s degree in musical theater, brings a natural sweetness to Hero. Sheldon Best, who was outstanding in the recent Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of “The Oil Thief,” is an entirely credible Claudio. More lamb than lion in matters of the heart, callow Claudio may be the least appealing lover in Shakespeare’s canon.

But the heart of the play is the erotic heat burning beneath the barbs of Beatrice and Benedick. Its embers, fanned by plotting friends, combust into ardor.

The simple set adapts to the play’s continuous cuts between comedy and villainy, as well as scenes that include a masked ball, garden intrigues and, ultimately, a wedding party.

Likewise, Evett’s production orchestrates the clever multitasking of actors and props by a company of chameleons adept at performing multiple parts while singing, dancing and playing instruments. Wearing suits, full-skirted dresses and World War II military officers’ jackets, the actors execute this quick-change artistry with aplomb.

As Margaret, Hero’s lady-in-waiting, Bobbie Steinbach belts out an Ella Fitzgerald ballad, “Imagination.” Pulling a jacket over her dress, she becomes Antonio, brother of Leonato. Later, adopting a thick Bronx accent, she plays a night watchman. Juggling four roles, Michael Forden Walker is a messenger, the villain Borachio, the gum-snapping maid Ursula, and a convincingly calm and wise Friar Francis.

The intimate staging allows the actors to break the barrier between audience and stage — the so-called “fourth wall” — with antics that add to the sense of surprise and fun. The only big problem with the cabaret-style arrangement is that some of Shakespeare’s fast-paced verbal fireworks are lost since the actors can face only part of the audience at any one time.

Jason Ries’ lighting enhances the intimacy of some scenes by highlighting actors’ faces at poignant moments. The choreography by Kelli Edwards sustains the festive spirit of a production that includes conga lines and a recording of Frankie Lymon’s 1956 doo-wop hit, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.”

Like the 1993 film adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, the ASP production casts real-life spouses in the lead roles. Beatrice and Benedick are portrayed by Paula Plum and Richard Snee, two virtuosos who embody the equality between the two sparring partners. They bring vinegar and brio to their roles — but not erotic spark.

Snee is a manly Benedick, but his performance allows few winces among the smirks to convey the vulnerability hinted at in the script. For example, after a withering fusillade from Beatrice, Benedick admits, “She speaks poniards, and every word stabs.”

In Shakespeare’s comedies, deception and disguise are tools to transform a smug world. In his tragedies, deceit leads to destruction. Five years after writing “Much Ado About Nothing,” he would produce “Othello” and its venomously efficient Iago, who reads and manipulates his master. This play’s miscreant, Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro, is a watered-down Iago.

Lanky Doug Lockwood is a seething Don John, who casts himself as an envious outsider. He strides across the room, pops balloons and swigs straight from a bottle of champagne. Glowering, he tells his flask-guzzling partner in crime, Borachio, played by Michael Forden Walker: “I am a plain-dealing villain. I have decreed not to sing in my cage.”

When Don Pedro intercedes to win Hero’s hand on behalf of his shy protégé, Don John tells Claudio that his brother is wooing Hero for himself. But his ruse is quickly thwarted as Don Pedro proudly presents the radiant Hero to her sulking suitor.

Though better known for his comic gifts, John Kuntz is a debonair and dignified Don Pedro. A well-aimed spotlight captures Kuntz’s expressive face, which registers Don Pedro’s understanding of acid-tongued Beatrice, declaring her “a pleasant-spirited lady” with “a merry heart.” Kuntz also manages to convey the moment Don Pedro decides on a matchmaking scheme, minutes before he announces it to Leonato and Claudio.

The scheme and a series of subsequent ruses guide the play through slander, revelation, the softening of hard hearts, murderous commands and comic misconceptions. Ultimately, though, they lead to reconciliation.

As a repentant suitor convinced he has lost his Hero, Best deftly plays a mournful saxophone solo as Smith listens, undetected, in the background. The tender scene prepares the audience for a reunion of the two sweet souls. Even Benedick and Beatrice call a truce and let love take its course.

Benedick has the last word. He calls for a dance, orders the pipers to play and observes, “Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion.”

After the rest of the actors snake off in a final conga line, Snee and Plum join in a slow dance under a spotlight. Their duet suggests that although coupling may be giddy business, at times, it leads to grace.

The Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” runs through Sunday, June 14, 2009, at the Roxbury Center for Arts at Hibernian Hall, 182-186 Dudley Street, Roxbury. For tickets, show times and more information, call 617-776-2200 or visit http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org.