Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
As the play opens, Benedick (a wondrous Dameion Brown) is returning with his brothers in arms from a successful skirmish against the Hatfields, and will spend a month or so on R&R at the estate of Leonato (Steve Price in a charming yet powerful turn). And since Benedick and Leonato's niece Beatrice (a delightfully comic Elena Wright) are in the midst of a "kind of merry war," verbal sparks will soon fly. We will also learn that Benedick's friend Claudio (Joshua Hollister) is madly in love with Leonato's daughter Hero (Nicole Apostol Bruno), but he is unsure of how best to woo her. Benedick, for his part, swears he will never marry. As in many of Shakespeare's comedies, the course of true love does not run smooth, and there will be much subterfuge and false identities and cruel mischief before romance will have its run.
In keeping with the setting, and the merry nature of the play, director Robert Currier has commissioned composer Billie Cox to create several songs to go with the actionand she has come through with several splendid numbers that align perfectly with the characters, the action, and the Kentucky milieu. The first number, "Moonshine," finds the women of Leonato's estate pining for the men off at war, drowning their sorrows in home-distilled liquor. In "I'm Bad," the arch-villain Don John (Clay David) unapologetically celebrates his knavery in song.
Speaking of Don John, Clay David absolutely slurps up the opportunity Shakespeare presents. He's a scoundrel out of a melodrama, with his leering eyes, lascivious tongue and snarling mouth taking the performance right to the edge of too muchbut never going over. Every time he walks on stage, you can feel the audience perk up, waiting for his next expression of nastiness.
But this show is primarily about Beatrice and Benedick, and their refusal to admit their love for each other. Benedick is played by Dameion Brown, an actor who won last year's San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award for best actor for his portrayal of Othello. Brown, who was discovered through Marin Shakespeare's prison outreach program, served 23 years of a life sentence before being paroled. He was worried he couldn't handle the comedy requirements of Much Ado, but he needn't have worriedhe is wonderful, with terrific comic timing and a genuine feel for the rhythms of Shakespeare's language and the demands of his character. Elena Wright's Beatrice is a terrific foil, standing up to Benedick, while at the same time expressing her unspoken desires with an easy physicality, and wielding Shakespeare's wit with a surgeon's precision.
Director Currier gives us a marvelous, homespun take on one of Shakespeare's best. The bluegrass tunes by Billie Cox are likewise performed with enthusiasm and zeal. None of the cast are top-notch players, but that seems part of the charm: it's as though we are watching friends who love music and singing jamming together around a campfire.
Despite some sexy subtext and physical action, this production is a great introduction for kids to the brilliance of the Bard. More than that, it's terrifically entertaining for all.
Much Ado About Nothing runs through July 23, 2017, at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael CA. Show times are 8:00pm Fridays and Saturdays, and 4:00pm and 8:00pm on Sundays. Ticket prices are $37 general, $34 senior, and $10 for youth 25 and under. More information is available by calling 415-499-4488 or at www.marinshakespeare.org.