I’ll give ‘Some,’ but not ‘Much,’ ado about ‘Nothing’
Woodward Shakespeare Festival is heading into its third weekend of “Much Ado About Nothing,” a youthful production at its strongest when it comes to physical comedy.
A gaggle of current and recently graduated Fresno State and Fresno City College students dominates the show. They including director Summer Session, who especially has fun doling out amusing bits involving an impish Benedick (Quincy Maxwell), the famed half of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved bickering couples. (Casey Ballard, as Beatrice, gets in some entertaining moments, too.)
I had mixed feelings about the opening-weekend performance I attended. Some thoughts:
Beach setting: Session opts to put “Much Ado” in a 1940s Long Beach setting. (The location is an unexpected choice — I associate Long Beach more with big container ships and the CSU Chancellor’s Office than a California beach vibe, but, then again, I’m not really a SoCal guy.) The beach theme does fit in nicely with the casual, lawn-chair atmosphere of the outdoor Woodward Park setting. And it helps set the tone for a funny scene in which the shirtless Claudio (James Anderson) and Don Pedro (Andrew Trevino) enact an amusing muscle-beach routine that is a nod toward their characters’ preening masculinity.
The acting: My favorites include Ballard’s confident Beatrice, Rodolfo Robles Cruz’s menacing Don John, Julia Prieto’s sincere Hero, and Cha Yang as a cheery Dogberry, imagined here as a fumbling lifeguard with bright red sneakers and a big, gracious sense of justice. Meanwhile, I didn’t connect as much as I would have liked with Anderson (whose Claudio can seem a little overplayed and Trevino (whose Don Pedro came across to me as somewhat bland and unfocused.)
Related story: For the cast of ‘Much Ado,’ dressing for the beach is a Summer gift
Standout performer: Suzanne Grażyna is terrific in a gender-bending role as Leonato (Hero’s father). She finds in the role a stern resolve, clever sense of intrigue and a flirtatious charm. (I was rooting at the end for her to find a little love, too.)
As for Benedick: Maxwell is a sensitive and accomplished actor, and I’ve been impressed with him before on stage, but this was one performance that rubbed me the wrong way. He comes across as too manic and eager to please, and his monologues needed better direction. (Plus, his haircut — shaved on the sides with his hair longer and a bit ragged on top, giving him what looked to me like cross between a stunted man-bun and an asymmetrical Chinese-style cue — was not flattering. It made him look a lot younger — and also a little scary.) I did find myself warming to Maxwell late in the play, particularly when he is finally able to express his true feelings for Beatrice (his “I do love nothing in the world so well as you” was deeply affecting), but it wasn’t quite enough.
The direction: Session shows a lot of directorial promise, and the cast is well-prepared. Scene transitions feel crisp, but even with all the physical moments, the show has a sluggish overall feel. (The performance was supposed to be 105 minutes with no intermission, but it clocked in at more than two hours — far too long to make people sit in the park without a break.) Still, along with the physical comedy, “Mr. Leonato” and the well-prepared cast, what I like best about this “Much Ado” is the enthusiasm of the company. And, besides, this trip to the beach takes just a few minutes. That beats nearly three hours to the coast any day.
“Much Ado About Nothing,” a Woodward Shakespeare Festival production. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Aug. 25. Tickets are free; a $5 parking entrance fee applies.
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