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Wedding Crashers

It's The Side Characters and Plots That Enliven Shakespeare's Workhorse Romantic Comedy

Firm Support: (from left) Deborah Hazlett (second from left) may be the star, but Carl Schurr (far left), Megan Anderson, and Kenneth Jackson (far right) help make the production really work.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/28/2007

When a theater finally decides to tackle its first Shakespeare play, a good choice is Much Ado About Nothing. The comedy is tremendously entertaining, and yet it makes fewer demands on a cast and crew than most of the Bard's works. If the actors in the three key roles-Beatrice, Benedick, and Dogberry-sparkle, then the other actors and the production values can be merely competent and the show succeeds.

In the program notes for the Everyman Theatre's production of Much Ado, artistic director Vincent Lancisi writes, "I promised myself and the company that I would not attempt staging Shakespeare at Everyman until the theatre had the resources to perform it successfully. It took 17 years to get to this point." The result is a less-than-perfect but quite enjoyable production, one that thrives in large part because Lancisi so smartly cast the three linchpin parts.

Deborah Hazlett is too old to be Beatrice, the young Italian who professes to have no use for men and marriage. But one quite willingly overlooks her age, for Hazlett is so terrific at flinging the needle-sharp insults for which Beatrice is famous. In the opening scene, Hazlett's Beatrice, a long coil of red hair trailing down to the low-cut collar of her white gown, plants her feet in her uncle Leonato's front yard, cocks her hip, allows a fleeting smile to flicker across her lips, and tells Benedick in a taunting rise of voice, "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he love me."

Benedick, played by Jim Jack, a long, lean actor with a trim beard and a white soldier's jacket, leans back as if struck by a blow. But he too smiles, enjoying the joust, and replies, "God keep your ladyship in that mind, so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face." He even swaggers a bit, as if recovering a man's prerogative.

"Scratching could not make it worse," Beatrice replies, with the buzz of the wasp before the sting, "'twere such a face as yours."

Beatrice and Benedick are not even the main focus of the play's plot. Most of the action revolves around the difficult romance between Beatrice's first cousin Hero and Benedick's army buddy Claudio. This handsome, earnest couple fall madly in love and are quickly engaged before a false rumor rips them apart at the wedding altar. Only a faked death can bring them back together. But Shakespeare was obviously less interested in this borrowed plot, which he treated rather perfunctorily, than in the barbed banter between the sidekicks, to which he devoted his best lines. Directors and audiences have followed the playwright's lead in this ever since.

Not only do Beatrice and Benedick upstage the supposed central characters, but so does Dogberry, the town's clownish constable. His frizzy gray hair spilling out of a floppy tan cap, the moon-faced Will Love plays Dogberry as a plumper, Shakespearean version of Don Knotts' Barney Fife, a small-town lawman whose sense of self-importance is all out of proportion to his wit and ability. When he drags two prisoners to Governor Leonato, for example, Dogberry declares, "Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons." Thus mangling the English language, Love beams with smug satisfaction as if he's been as clever as Beatrice herself.

The rest of the cast gives these three stars capable support. The wonderful Megan Anderson is appealing but underutilized in the one-dimensional role of Hero. Jason Lott purrs with evil rather than ranting with rage as the villainous Don John, who spreads the false rumor. As Antonio, Kenneth Jackson does a fine job with the "Hey, Nonny, Nonny" song, while Michael Kramer shines as Claudio's mentor Don Pedro. Less impressive is Matthew Schleigh, who feels more callow than necessary as Claudio. Far better are Karen Novack and Dawn Ursula, who shine as Hero's two saucy, sassy servants.

There was some stumbling over lines opening night; several of the ensemble players proved too tentative, and Daniel Ettinger's drab, low-budget set is no more than functional. On the other hand, director Lancisi added some physical confrontation to make the first wedding scene even more brutal and some physical comedy to make the eavesdropping scenes even funnier. All in all, Everyman's first Shakespeare is a good omen for the many more sure to come.

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