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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing

Stunning. Spectacular. Stylish. Superb. Splendiferous. Shakespeare. Okay, so the last one isn't alliteration, but that's okay. Theatre Calgary's latest production has earned all of the hyperbolic praises one can throw at it with its current production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Patrons of Theatre Calgary are being invited into a sumptuous feat for the eyes, ears and, yes, even the heart. Everything a Shakespeare comedy could possibly offer is presented with great flair and panache in this finely tuned, achingly poignant production. Shakespeare's comedies are not often cited for their great emotional depth—certainly they are full of wit and wise observations about humanity and its foibles, but for true pathos and the all-important life-lessons, we often turn to the tragedies. This production, however, has all of the Shakespearean comedic elements, and in director Dennis Garnhum's sensitive and insightful vision, we are also treated to an emotional profundity rarely seen in a comedy. Indeed, this production comes as close to the Wagnerian ideal of gesamtkunstwerk as anything I have yet seen at Theatre Calgary; a totality of the arts is present in Garnhum's approach. In this Much Ado, music, lights, set design, costumes and action are fused into one satisfying, thrilling whole.

The moment the audience enters the Max Bell Theatre, we are immediately aware of one thing: this is no ordinary production. Indeed, in his opening night comments, Garnhum told the audience that when he wanted to do Shakespeare, he wanted to do it big. He has succeeded. The set, masterfully conceived by Pam Johnson, is a huge, sumptuous 19th century Italian vineyard. With four distinct levels, the set has a three-dimensional quality that makes for a very vibrant and busy place. Indeed, there is rarely a scene occurring where there isn't stage business happening in the background to continually ground the audience in the everyday working reality of this vineyard. Composer Jeremy Spencer's score for the show is evocative of a bygone era, immediately wistful and relaxing, while Anita Miotti's choreography is delicate, appropriate and convincing. When the characters hold their masque to celebrate the end of the war and the soldier's return, the joy is obvious in their dancing. Similarly, Kelly Wolf's costumes are beautiful; from the ragged uniforms of soldiers returning from war, to the simplistic peasant blouses and hoop skirts of the chorus as they diligently and lovingly tend to their daily duties on the vineyard, everything has an air of simplicity and earthly beauty. Of special note are the costumes worn to the 'masque' in act one. Wolf's cleverly rendered masks, made from the vines of the vineyard itself, add to the fantastical otherworldliness of the story, enhancing once again Garnhum's overall vision for the show.

Much Ado About Nothing revolves around two contrasting (both in style and in temperament) love affairs. On the vineyard of landowner Leonato, we learn that a recent war has ended and that Prince Don Pedro, his bastard brother Don John, and soldiers Claudio and Benedick are imminently arriving, along with a company of soldiers who survived the battle. Soon, Leonato's daughter Hero and the amorous young Claudio are in love. Meanwhile, the older (and seemingly wiser) Benedick and Beatrice exchange many witty barbs and attacks upon one another. In other words, they are in love, too. With Don Pedro's help, Claudio wins permission to marry Hero, and Benedick is made to believe that Beatrice actually loves him, and vice versa. Everything seems to be going well, until Don John plans to destroy the wedding of Claudio and Hero by causing Claudio to believe that she is unfaithful. Why? Because he's the jealous bastard brother of Don Pedro ... keep up, will you? Add to the mix a bumbling policeman in charge of the night watch, some appropriate railing against the fickle nature of men's love, and a last-minute reconciliation, and you have a most remarkably funny and surprisingly touching evening of theatre.

Dennis Garnhum has done a remarkable job of infusing this play with a life-affirming vitality and energy. The script may be 400 years old, but Garnhum manages to find freshness and liveliness in every scene. The aforementioned stage business and constant movement is one impressive aspect of this production; indeed, this is a very physical Shakespeare. There is movement and action at every moment, yet none of it distracts from the story being told. Garnhum is also an obvious admirer of the Bard, for this production relishes not only in its physical beauty, but in the beauty and power of Shakespeare's words. Garnhum's pacing allows for the perfect delivery, annunciation and landing of every line without ever once seeming draggy.

The cast is remarkable. These actors have worked very hard to make the dialogue and language of Shakespeare as natural and easy to understand as possible. They perform the work using Shakespeare's own advice from Hamlet, 'trippingly on the tongue'; there is no strutting and declaiming in this production. After perhaps three or four minutes, one senses a palpable feeling of relief from the audience, as all of the apprehension that comes with attending a Shakespeare play evaporates. When performed correctly, Shakespeare's dialogue is easily understood. In Theatre Calgary's hands, this is most definitely the case. In the roles of Hero and Claudio, Elizabeth Kirkland and Tyrell Crews are well cast. Kirkland has a vulnerability about her; Kirkland's Hero is by turns dazzled and destroyed by the overpowering emotions surrounding her. Crews is equally suited to the task of portraying the awestruck young lover. Crews is best in the scenes when he is publicly shaming Hero; when Claudio learns of Hero's 'unfaithfulness', his sudden anger is almost frightening. Likewise, Stephen Hair's Leonato is a truly believable father figure in the play; Hair is especially good in the scene when Leonato first learns of his daughter's alleged affair. He first berates and belittles his daughter, then visibly shrinks with shame and remorse as he listens to her heartfelt pleas and protests. In Hair's hands, Leonato physically diminishes as a result of his guilt.

In the lovable comic role of Dogberry, the Captain of the Watch, Kevin Corey is nothing short of remarkable. Corey, last seen in ATP's Seussical, inhabits Dogberry in every facet, creating a pompous but lovable policeman with 'Little Man Syndrome'. His malapropisms and overwrought sense of self-importance are a hysterical delight. Corey's Dogberry is quirky in all the right ways. Because it is Shakespeare, it takes the audience a little while to catch on to Dogberry's constant misuse of words and phrases; however, Corey does an admirable job of ensuring that we understand his character's misunderstanding.

The true stars of the evening, however, are undeniably Benedick and Beatrice, played to perfection here by Allan Morgan and Valerie Planche. At the opening of the play, they vehemently and enjoyably tear into one another with barbs and jibes; an immediate chemistry is created. The two actors are a perfect pair, each allowing the other to shine in all of their scenes together. Their solo work is equally impressive, and drives home the true love Benedick and Beatrice feel for one another. When Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro discuss how much Beatrice loves Benedick, knowing full well that Benedick is listening, Morgan's reaction are absolutely priceless. After a complicated and protracted scene that involves Morgan crawling up and down all four levels of the set to hear what the others are saying, Morgan turns to the audience with a smile and a sigh so goofy and sincere it almost breaks the heart. Similarly, Planche's Beatrice is a world-weary, cynical old battle-axe, delivering her acerbic barbs and jibes at Benedick with enough venom to wound, but never permanently kill. When she is led to believe that Benedick secretly loves her, Planche's transformation is hysterical.

Special mention must also be given to two young stars, Robert Morrison and Nicole Furlan, who play Boy and Girl. Both are making their Theatre Calgary debuts with this show. Boy and Girl are given many of the lines that would have been assigned to a variety of minor page and servant characters; Morrison and Furlan display a remarkable adeptness at delivering difficult Shakespeare lines at such a young age. Especially enjoyable are their interactions with one another throughout the show; Garnhum uses them to perhaps mirror Benedick and Beatrice, as well as to indicate endless circle of human flirtation—the next generation of desperate, hopeless romantics in this surreal Shakespearean world. Kudos to Theatre Calgary for also encouraging the next generation of Calgary thespians!

Theatre Calgary's production of Much Ado About Nothingruns in Calgary, Alberta through April 10th, 2011. For more information visit www.theatrecalgary.com.


Photo: Trudie Lee

--Gavin Logan



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