(Garden Grove, CA) August 17, 2012 – Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. William Powell and Myrna Loy. What do these talented legends have in common? They are famous Hollywood on-screen couples whose magnetic chemistry seems to bring a smile to the faces of audiences around the world. Most of them are couples “behind the camera”, as well. But there is no denying that when two actors seem to “click” on film or on the stage, the audience can sense that magical connection and become completely enveloped into their romantic journey.
It always helps to have a good script to illustrate that personal chemistry, and William Shakespeare was the master in creating passionate, and oftentimes tumultuous, scenarios which captures the hearts of all romantics. The best examples include THE TAMING OF THE SHREW, ROMEO AND JULIET, and most appropriately, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. The tempestuous relationship between Benedick and Beatrice is one of biting wit and compassionate love, and the actors cast in these roles must possess an on-stage rapport in order to make the story come alive. At Shakespeare Orange County, stage veterans Michael Nehring and Evelyn Carol Case drive this timeless play with class and comedic flair.
There is gossip abound in Messina. A contingent of soldiers, led by Prince Don Pedro (Goran Tenney Norquist), has come to visit the city for a month after a string of key victories. The city’s governor, Leonato (a powerfully regal William Gillean) dreams to have his exuberant daughter Hero (Malia Wright) and his elegant niece Beatrice (Evelyn Carol Case) married to loyal, trustworthy men. Hero is more than happy to walk down the sacred aisle, especially when she falls in love with one of Don Pedro’s soldiers, Claudio (Shaun Anthony). To everyone’s pleasure, both young lovers plan to marry within a week. Beatrice, on the other hand, is a free spirit whose only source of pleasure is trading verbal barbs with long-time adversary Benedick (Michael Nehring), who also holds the status of bachelorhood dear to his heart. However, Leonato and Pedro soon discover that both Beatrice and Benedick protest a little too much regarding the “joys” of being single. Therefore, they conjure a plan to have these “opponents” fall in love with each other. Unfortunately, Don Pedro’s half-brother, Don John (Brian Clark), focuses his envy and resentment towards anything and anybody who is happy, thereby spinning of web of deceit and treachery that may lead to Claudio and Hero breaking apart forever.
Back to the topic of on-stage chemistry: the performances of Nehring and Case were especially enjoyable in terms of how they shine individually and with each other. It was a pleasure seeing the profound character actor Nehring playing a romantic lead. He is far from the “leading man type” that is usually cast for the role of Benedick; he is middle-aged, bald, portly and his goatee beard is white. However, his charm, eloquence of the Bard’s poetics, and especially his graceful comedic movements wins not only Beatrice, but also the audience that he sometimes addresses, adding to his charisma even more. Case’s Beatrice is very reminiscent of Zelda Fitzgerald in terms of her pixyish hairstyle, her flapper wardrobe, and especially her energetic demeanor. In the beginning of the play, both Nehring and Case eye each other with a playful, competitive edge. But as the matchmaking scheme progresses, especially when both “eavesdrop” on various conversations regarding how one loves the other, both display their incredible sense of physical comedy. Towards the end, their love combines the essential ingredients of a passionate fire and a deep, caring respect. These talented artists would in good company with the onstage/onscreen couples previously mentioned in this review. If SOC desires to put on a production of MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, Nehring and Case would be perfect as Falstaff and Mistress Ford; and RICHARD III’s John Walcutt would be a hilariously jealous Master Ford, finally showcasing his comedic skills at SOC after giving two intense performances of RICHARD and JULIUS CAESAR.
As always, Shaun Anthony shows his diverse skills playing both character roles (Edgar in KING LEAR) and young romantic leads (Antipholus in COMEDY OF ERRORS). Anthony’s Claudio is considerably more naïve and gullible than Antipholus, but his scenes with Wright’s Hero are tender and sweet. After making quite a memorable impression as a courtesan in last year’s COMEDY OF ERRORS, Wright demonstrates she has the talent and presence to be a romantic lead, as well as showing her fluid comedic skills when she helps with the matchmaking between Benedick and Beatrice.
As far as the supporting players are concerned, the performances are mostly consistent. Although Norquist does have hilarious scenes as Don Pedro, and one touching scene where he proposes to Beatrice (who she kindly rejects), his choice to portray the prince as an effeminate, preening dandy who sometimes screeches in falsetto when a plan works is not only distracting and puzzling, but also inconsistent to the fact that the character is a soldier returning from the wars, not an effete fop. But the most surprising performance was Brian Clark’s Don John. On the page, Don John is a rather flat villain who is intense, moody, and a total malcontent. It is an acting challenge to find any kind of depth from this one-note character. The good news is Clark is up to the challenge by adding unexpected humor to his role. When first seen in a slick Godfather suit and hat, Clark looks like character actor Jon Polito from MILLER’S CROSSING. He’s a foreboding villain, but when he gets stressed, Clark pulls out a stuffed kitten from his coat and pets it as though he were Doctor Evil from the AUSTIN POWERS movies. It is a fantastic, unexpected scene-stealer and bravo to Clark on this humorous turn. Finally, Craig Brown is hilarity personified as the Constable Dogberry, whose militaristic incompetence is matched only by his incoherence of the English vocabulary, specifically words that are longer than three syllables.
The pacing of this comedy is extremely fast, but not incoherent or out of control, courtesy of Tomas Bradac’s finely tuned direction. What enhances this smooth pace is Bradac’s choice to update the play to the 1920s. The music, the scenic design, and especially Kathryn Wilson’s costume design capture the carefree period perfectly. And the actors take on the flavor and atmosphere with gusto. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is a true pleasure for all.
Much Ado About Nothing opened August 16 and runs to September 1
Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA
Photos by: Mark Samala