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A CurtainUp Review
Much Ado About Nothing
' By Deirdre Donovan
Before the lights went up, Stephanie Ybarra, the Public's Line Producer for the Mobile Unit, gave a short introduction to the performance and background of Joseph Papp's Mobile Shakespeare Unit productions, which hails back to 1957. She explained that the current Mobile Unit is not only a nod to Papp's original vision to bring Free Shakespeare to the masses, but an ongoing realization of his impulse for a democratic Shakespeare. She added that the square of green astroturf before our eyes had been used by the traveling troupe of Much Ado to perform at the various prison sites and homeless centers in the community, and that it would serve the boards at the Public's Luesther Space.
The action opens with a fashion show, the cast strutting their American verve and style. These New York actors keep Shakespeare real as they move confidently across the stage, through the aisles, or playfully landing on an audience member's lap, borrowing his hat for the dramatic moment. No doubt this is Shakespeare with a strong New York accent and attitude.
If you need to bone up on the play, go a few minutes early to the performance and thumb through the program notes. Though the synopsis omits many of the play's twists and turns, it does give you the prevailing mood and atmosphere in Messina along with its characters' mindset and the social milieu that they inhabit.
This Spartan production is practically prop-free, except for a white trunk and makeshift garden and arbor. Clint Ramos' costumes are coherently eclectic, some looking like they were plucked right off the racks of Bergdorf, and others looking like they were found in the bins of a Salvation Army thrift shop. No matter. Shane Rettig has composed some upbeat usic that begs you to dance to its lively measures, and Chase Brock's nifty dance sequences are incorporated into pivotal scenes and at the finale.
But it's the acting that's the thing here! You won't see any miscast actors in this 8-member ensemble. Perhaps it's the troupe's esprit de corps that makes the difference or that elusive thing called "chemistry." These thespians speak their Shakespeare verse in an unpretentious manner, yet wrap their mouths around the iambic pentameters just fine.
No star turns, but plenty of strong efforts. Michael Braun, as the buoyant Benedict, balances his protagonist's early hubris with his later humility (He's not impervious to Cupid's bow, after all!). Samantha Soule does well as the good-natured but sharp-tongued hoyden who gradually realizes that she can trust, and fall in love with Benedict without losing her vital spirit.
If Kerry Warren's Hero at first comes across as a lukewarm lover, she is quite in keeping with Shakespeare's text as she is supposed to be the obedient daughter, submissive female, and Claudio's would-be lover. And Warren is all that. Dogberry, of course, has the coup de theatre and Lucas Caleb Rooney does the inept constable with suitably comic ineptness, spinning out his malapropisms, one after another.
Marc Damon Johnson as the Prince of Arragonn inhabits Don Pedro with dignity, resourcefulness, and a soupcon of impishness. Don Pedro, after all, becomes a surrogate Cupid here as he schemes to play match-maker for Claudio and Hero, and then do roughly the same for Beatrice and Benedict. Cast members ably handling several roles. Rosal Colon agilely takes on a trio, including Hero's gentlewomen Margaret, Borachia (a female version of the traditional Borachio), and Friar Francis.
This Much Ado is staged with broad strokes, and never overreaches itself. Under Kwame Kwei-Armah's taut direction, it moves in the direction of simplicity. And, in two words, it's simply irresistible.