Much Ado opens Renaissance Season at Blackfriars

Watching the audience is one of my favorite parts of the experience at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. Unlike with most Shakespeare companies, the crowd is normally eclectic, representing a range of ages, ethnicities, and fashion sensibilities. The packed house on opening night of Much Ado About Nothing—the first of five shows that make up the company’s famed Actor’s Renaissance Season for 2012—was no exception, and the place simply buzzed with anticipation.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING plays on select dates at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton through April 6.  For more information visit ASC online or call 877-682-4236.

The “Ren” season, as it is lovingly called by regulars, is particularly fun for theatergoers, because it offers a taste of the shear madness that was common in Shakespeare’s time. Plays are produced with no special lighting, no sets, and no electronic sound (which is standard practice for American Shakespeare Center productions), but the ‘Ren’ season shows have no director, no costume designer, and entail only two days of rehearsal time before their opening nights. Much Ado is glorious, hilarious, magical mayhem, and the audience gobbled it up like a favorite dessert, rewarding the actors with six curtain-less curtain calls and a standing ovation.

Miriam Donald played a feisty, somewhat snarky, Beatrice as a foil to Benjamin Curns’ puffed up, overly emotional Benedick, making an irresistibly dynamic pair as the couple warred with words before being tricked into love. One audience member laughed knee-slapping hard during the scene where Benedick complained about Beatrice as she, unknown to him, stood directly behind him. In that scene Donald was so physically strong and present and Curns so perfectly comic in his expressions and movements that the contrast was like sea salt sprinkled on caramel.

Taken as a whole, the show was clever—the text so expertly delivered, the acting so attuned to the audience that it was almost as much fun to watch the audience reactions as it was to watch the actors. Two young boys seated to the left of the stage were rapt the entire show and almost fell out of their chairs laughing along with the rest of the audience as Benedick dove over a rail into a seating aisle as he eavesdropped on a conversation about himself.

Brandi Rhome played the ingenue, Hero, with the regal bearing of a young Michelle Obama. Aiden O’Reilly, as the evil Don Jon, practically slithered on the stage in his Johnny Cash black suit and rock star shades. He made a cool, hip villain and somehow broadened a character who often comes across as one-dimensional because he has so few lines. John Harrell gave the verbally-challenged Dogberry such an authoritative air that the irony of his insisting “I am an ass,” was doubly funny.

The only difficulty I found with the production was the distraction caused by Donald’s obvious pregnancy. With such a glaring baby bump on Beatrice, how to explain Benedick’s worship of her, when the play itself is a game about the purity in virginity. I know, I know, it’s irony, and she was spectacular in the role, but her “condition” made it hard for me to suspend disbelief the way I would like.

The key to the overwhelming success of this version of one of Shakespeare’s classic folly comedies is the clarity and power of the playwright’s words as delivered by these highly talented actors.

The audience engaged because they could understand what was happening on the stage, whether they were used to the diction or not. I heard the script with fresh ears and glancing around the theater, it was clear I wasn’t alone.

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