Jobsite Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing is so wonderfully sharp and charming, it’s a testament to just how far the company has come over the years.
With the splendid Roxanne Fay as Beatrice and the superb Ned Averill-Snell as Benedick, with first-rate performances by Jobsite regulars Matt Lunsford and Jason Vaughan-Evans, and with more-than-competent work by the other six actors as well, this is a clinic on how Shakespeare should be played by Americans.
Yes, it’s possible that some of the comic scenes among the lower-class characters are excessive, but this is a small problem in a production that’s notable for its precision, clarity and heart. If you think that Shakespeare’s language is hard to understand, this is the show that will change your mind: Nothing could be plainer than the competition of the play’s dueling lovers, B&B, or the plight of poor, misunderstood Hero, slandered by the evil Don John. Much Ado may not be one of the Bard’s most mind-expanding comedies (I’d vote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It), but this Jobsite version is so successful, you’ll want to know and remember it. It’s not often that a Shakespeare production goes so right in so many ways.
At the center of the play are two sets of lovers: Beatrice and Benedick, and Hero and Claudio. B&B are old hands at mocking and scorning each other, answering sharp word with sharp riposte, and generally getting on one another’s nerves. Then it occurs to some devious characters to turn them into lovers: they’re both made to overhear conversations in which it’s said that their ostensible enemy is in fact deeply enamored. Believing themselves already adored by their foes, they find their own emotions liberated and hasten to confess that the attraction is mutual. Whether this artificially constructed honeymoon can last is another question.
As for Hero and Claudio, they’re engaged to be married when they fall afoul of Don John’s malicious plan to forever separate them. He informs Claudio that Hero is already cheating on him, and arranges for the bewildered softie to see his fiancée apparently in flagrante delicto with another man in her window the night before the wedding. Claudio is devastated, and turns the nuptial ceremony into a nightmare of accusation and rejection. Will the truth ever surface? Hero is distraught, Claudio is unshakeable, and even a certain ruse that will turn up again in The Winter’s Tale isn’t sure to fix the mess. Deception, which turned one set of antagonists into lovers, has turned these lovers into antagonists. Even if you know your Shakespeare, the suspense here is intense — and delicious.
Fay is the perfect Beatrice. Self-assured, quick-witted, almost leonine in her ability to leap verbally from barb to barb, she’s undefeatable by anything but that least expected of salvos: a declaration of love. And Averill-Snell as Benedick is the worthiest of opponents. More considered than Beatrice, radiating power and authority with a masculine solidity, it seems he can’t be contradicted when he insists that he’ll never marry. Think again, old stone-jaw. Shakespeare doesn’t lavish the same attention on Hero and Claudio, but Betty-Jane Parks is fine as the rather conventional young woman who can’t understand why anyone would question her chastity, and Jonathan Cho is likably straightforward as the young suitor who questions it and then some. A more complex performance is offered by Matt Lunsford as Don Pedro, a prince whose nobility is not only of rank but of character, and Jason Vaughan Evans is delightful as Borachio, a comic miscreant on whose testimony two lovers’ happiness ultimately depends.
Top-notch too is Alvin Jenkins as Hero’s father Leonato, a man so recognizably realistic, you forget that he’s speaking blank verse. And then there’s Spencer Meyers as Constable Dogberry — somehow charming no matter how extreme his physical high jinks. If Michael C. McGreevy’s Don John lacks a visible motive for his evil, still he’s coldly convincing, and if several of the actors ham it up shamelessly when doubling as comic commoners, you finally just have to accept it as a pardonable offense in such a pleasing context.
This Much Ado, ably directed by David M. Jenkins, is just too good to be capsized by quibbles. Add Katrina Stevenson’s lovely period costumes and Brian Smallheer’s useful set, and you’ve got a lot to be grateful for.
Much Ado About Nothing: it’s worth seeing and savoring.
If you care — or want to care — about Shakespeare, don’t miss it.