Seek Not To Alter

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING 
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Cotterman
Presented by the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory at the Evergreen House through August 3

What is the handsomest theater space in Baltimore? Everyman Theatre, Single Carrot Theatre, and the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company all have impressive, recently built homes, and the restored movie palace that is the Hippodrome Theatre is dazzling. But none of them can match the meadow at the Evergreen House, where the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is currently presenting a flawed but enjoyable production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s hard to top green grass for a stage floor, towering oaks for a proscenium, dense forest for a backdrop, or a dusk sky for a ceiling. On opening night, rabbits could be seen hopping between the trees and owls heard hooting from deep in the woods. 

Of course, you have to know how to use such a special space, and Chris Cotterman, the director of “Much Ado,” made an unwise decision when he chose to stage the show in the round. It’s difficult enough for experienced actors to make themselves heard indoors when their backs are turned to half the audience. It’s pretty much impossible for inexperienced actors working outdoors, and in this production too many lines of dialogue prove inaudible. 

Fortunately, the two lead characters, Beatrice and Benedick, are played by Jenna Rossman and Lonnie DeVaughan Simmons, who are loud and showy. Much of the pleasure in “Much Ado,” one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies, comes from their repartee. When Beatrice announces, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me,” Rossman delivers the insult with healthy volume and a little body English. And when Benedick replies, “God keep your Ladyship still in that mind, so some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face,” Simmons returns her volley with some real vigor—and a little venom beneath his presumed courtesy. But Beatrice comes right back with, “Scratching could not make it worse, an ‘twere such a face as yours were.”

Benedick is among a group of soldiers who have been invited to sojourn at the home of Leonato, the Governor of Messina. Both Leonato’s daughter Hero and his niece Beatrice are unmarried young women at the house, and while the latter makes a sport of repulsing men, the former is soon making moon eyes at Claudio, Benedick’s best friend. Claudio and Hero are soon engaged to be wed, but Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, is always looking to make trouble and hatches a plot to cast an apparent blot on Hero’s virtue. The marriage is called off at the very altar, and complications ensue. 

This Baltimore Shakespeare Factory production boasts a vaudevillian swagger and broadness that fit the outdoor venue and youthful cast. Understatement has its place in the theater, but that place is not an open field on a summer night. 

When Rossman discusses the relations between men and women she underlines every double entendre in Shakespeare’s dialogue with a bawdy gesture, her arm rising sharply upward from the white-and-lavender sleeves of her gown. When, as Dogberry, Leonato’s head of security, Sean Elias mercilessly mangles the English language, he does so with boastful pomposity, as if showing off his education. Dogberry and his men are the Keystone Cops of the 16th century, bumbling incompetents who misapply law enforcement as enthusiastically as their boss misuses his vocabulary. 

As Don Pedro, Josh Thomas shakes his big afro with laughter at Benedick’s disavowal of romance and warns him, “I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love,” with a thrust of the hip as if it were a street-corner snap. When Don Pedro’s prediction comes true, Simmons transforms his rock-hard, jutting jaw into a quivering bowl of pudding. When he overhears his friends saying that Beatrice really loves him, he cowers behind the audience members offstage as if love were a dog that might bite him.

The production has its problems. As Claudio and Hero, Brendan Edward Kennedy and Emily Sucher are so quiet and subdued that they seem to disappear in the midst of their boisterous colleagues. Cotterman has cast some of the minor roles against gender without capitalizing on the change in any way. Leonato (Sue Struve) and Don Pedro’s henchman Borachio (Katharine Vary) are played by women, while Ursula (Sean Elias) and Margaret (Jim Knost) are played for men, but the gimmick reduces the chemistry of the battle of the sexes without any compensating payoff. Fortunately, these failures are overcome by the sheer comic vitality of Rossman, Simmons, Thomas, and Elias. 

The funnier first three acts of the play take place in the twilight of a summer evening. When the actors return from intermission for the fourth and fifth acts, however, the Baltimore sky has gone black, and the action grows darker too. Hero is betrayed and denounced; the wedding is canceled, and old friends challenge each other to a duel. Truth and humor return, however, when Dogberry’s hapless guards stumble into Borachio and bait him into a confession by their appalling witlessness. The play ends with two marriages celebrated by the entire cast doing a medieval dance and singing Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love.’ 

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