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Raising the Bard

Company shows off new space.

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There's an air of novel excitement as Richmond Shakespeare breaks in its glamorous new digs with its season opener, “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Patrons seem as eager to see how this new space in CenterStage will perform as the Richmond Shakespeare's artistic director, Grant Mudge, seems eager to show it off. In a humorous curtain speech, Mudge cites the amenities of the Gottwald Playhouse, including several mentions of the bar and its spacious bathrooms.

The space is indeed beautiful. Its gracious size allows the company to create the feel of an Elizabethan theater through the use of a large, though poorly constructed, wall at the back of the stage. The attempted antique look is a sharp contrast to the slick, contemporary minimalism of the Gottwald. Further visual discord comes in the form of huge, blue velvet curtain swags that hang on either side of the stage front, distracting reminders of the multipurpose aspect of the theater.

But the Gottwald really shines in its wonderful acoustics and lighting capabilities, which contribute much to the overall effect of the production.

Mudge's enthusiasm about exhibiting his company in this fancy-schmancy space seems to have influenced his direction into melodrama. The production is full of over-the-top-gestures, gratuitous blocking and senseless yelling, which may have been an attempt to fill the large space but is unmindful of the visual effect in the large but somehow intimate performance area with its flawless acoustics.

“Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare's cleverest works in which a simple comedic plot is made thoroughly engaging through witty wordplay. The two main characters, Beatrice (Sarah Jamillah Johnson) and Benedick (T.J. Simmons) verbally spar with the verve of competing professional swordsman while the vocabularily challenged Dogberry confounds with his gift for misusing words. Mudge has Johnson perform such silly blocking that it demeans her otherwise capable performance. In the first scene she's made to move about the stage with such dramatic action that she appears more like a caged tiger than a confident wordsmith. Fortunately, Simmons channels a young Will Smith in his Benedick and looks smooth even in his excessive roaming about the audience during one scene. He's completely charming as he flirts with the audience and, at one point, with himself in a mirror following a shave.

The performance that steals the show is Bob Jones' dutiful Dogberry. Jones brings such sincerity and razor-sharp timing to the role as he spouts lines laced with homophones that cause alternate meanings — such as “Thou shalt be condemned in the everlasting redemption.” At one point he had the others actors fighting to stay in character for need of laughing. The audience was equally amused — emitting loud guffaws as Alan Sader's Leonato gave a summarizing expression of puzzlement while Dogberry exits his final scene.

Overall, the theater performs spectacularly and the players are good enough to earn a standing ovation. Perhaps all those intermission visits to the bar helped. S

“Much Ado About Nothing” runs on selected dates through Oct. 25 at CenterStage. Tickets are $15-$38. For information go to www.richmondshakespeare.com or call 592-3400.

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