When I caught up with Post5 Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing on a not-too-sweltering Saturday night, each seat in the little Sellwood theater came equipped with a miniature hand-held fan, just in case. Curious, I fumbled with mine a bit, pressed a button in front, and – spritz! – a mist of moisture sprayed my face. The helpful woman in the next seat gently pointed out that the button for the fan part was on the back, and so it was. Still, I didn’t mind getting a little water in the kisser: it seemed to fit right in with the show.
It wasn’t just that several of the actors were getting soaked left, right, and upside down like contestants in a wet T-shirt contest at a dive bar. It’s also that spritz and surprise are key to the company’s whole approach to this witty and subtly edgy comedy: a clowning goofiness, a touch of bawdiness, a rollicking swagger, a pie-in-the-face physicality. This production is much ado about laughter, a smooth evocation of Post5’s desire to knock the stuffiness out of Shakespeare and bring him in plain quick language to the people. It’s a friendly sort of Shakespeare, swift and well-spoken and eager to please.
And please it does, for the most part. Cassandra and Ty Boice, married in real life, make an attractive and playful Beatrice and Benedick, those squabbling would-be lovers who have to be tricked into seeing the mutual attraction that’s as plain as the noses on their rubbery faces. B&B are The Taming of the Shrew’s Petruchio and Kate without the troubling sexual politics: they’re more obviously equals, as much give as take, and bound, you get the feeling, for a true partnership (not that P&K aren’t, too, within the context of their times). The whole enterprise has a screwball-comedy feeling, a George Cukor giddiness, with exaggerated physical animism and repartee for the pure fun of repartee. Ty Boice plays the bachelor-misogynist thick and heavy at the start, then tumbles quicker than a gymnast into sappy puppy-love. Cassandra Boice digs into his ribs sharply and mercilessly, but with obvious affection and a rueful sense of reluctant self-deprecation.
Pretty much everything about the show speaks easy-to-follow, from the late ’50s/early ’60s pop soundtrack to Alana Wight-Yedinak’s casual costumes to Aaron Kissinger’s cleverly pop-up set, which finds surprising and amusing spaces all over the tight little stage for director Darragh Kennan to deploy his good-sized cast. And there are some attractive supporting performances here: Stan Brown’s Don John, whose sole excuse for his innate nastiness seems to be that he’s a bastard (this is Shakespeare, so that’s literal); Adam Eliot Davis’s garrulous bad-guy Borachio, whose run-on ad libs drive Don John nuts; Paul Angelo’s Don Pedro, the conquering hero returned from the war; Scott Parker’s gregarious Don Pedro, host to everyone and father of the would-be bride; Olivia Weiss’s Margaret, whose friskiness unleashes unanticipated mischief; Samuel G. Holloway as the Friar, who, like the friar in Romeo and Juliet, seems to have more basic common sense than pretty much anyone else on stage; and, in the major subplot, Chip Sherman as the love-smitten young soldier Claudio and Aislin Courtis as a welcomingly spirited Hero, the object of Claudio’s affection and eventual disdain: I’ve seen Hero played as pretty much nothing but a pretty face waiting to be victimized, and I like the spunk that Courtis gives her instead.
The laughs roll out as the play rolls on, and I enjoyed myself, sometimes quite a bit. Still, a couple of things kept the show from being everything I thought it might be. The first is minor and understandable, a creative idea that doesn’t pan out. For the crucial wedding scene, in which Claudio, having been led to believe that Hero is a bawd, denounces her and she falls into a dead faint, director Kennan has the cast and audience leave the theater space and troop outside to the building’s courtyard. It’s a nice setting, but the interruption breaks the flow, and it doesn’t do the audience any favors. If you’re tall or get out in time to grab one of the few outside seats, you can see the action fine. If you’re short or don’t get a seat, you find yourself straining to see what’s going on. Sometimes what seems like a good idea just isn’t.
The more consequential second drawback, I think, keeps the production from digging into the difficult dramatic territory that darkens the play when Hero is so deeply wronged, and makes the tale more than just a rollicking lark. I wish that Kennan and the Boices had put the brakes on the immediate affability between the bickering lovers – had made their self-realization seem less a foregone conclusion and more a prize they can win only by fighting through the thickets of their own self-delusions. In this key sense the production is let down by its eagerness to entertain. Benedick and Beatrice are jolly misanthropes, and the Boices give us a lot of jolliness without much misanthropy. B&B think they despise each other, and then, in this production, give it up almost on a whim: without battling to overcome their own prejudices, everything comes too easily. It deflates the fury in Beatrice’s demand of Benedick – that he kill Claudio – and robs Beatrice and Benedick of the stern morality and willingness to stand against the tide that separates them from the rest of the play’s pack. Suddenly the petty injuries inflicted amid the general amusement of the evening have mortal consequences, and the terror of the thing should be felt.
Even the lightest of Shakespeare’s comedies are jagged things, with reminders of the tragic flip side of the game, and the best productions meet that reality head-on rather than shying away from it. The Boices’ B&B are great fun as far as they go. I think they could deepen, and give the show a greater impact. What isn’t there, though, shouldn’t detract from what is: an enjoyable, approachable, and imaginative evening of Shakespeare that at its best is genuinely beguiling. It’s a cheerful Much Ado, a date-night show, an elaborate entertainment and, for the Shakespeare-phobic, a good introduction to the joys to be had inside the bardic universe.
Shakespeare’s comedies are remarkably elastic, open to varying interpretation, and it’s interesting to compare this Much Ado to the Portland Shakespeare Project’s current Twelfth Night. Both productions emphasize (in different ways) clear language and a clean narrative. Much Ado has a modern setting and Twelfth Night is traditionally Elizabethan, but that’s a surface difference. While Much Ado seems lighter than it might be, Twelfth Night seems darker than it often is: its comedy comes with a melancholic air that’s inherent in the script but not always played with such determination. Jim Butterfield’s Toby Belch is less the lovable comic drunk of many productions and more clearly a plain old sour and bleary-eyed alcoholic. Allen Nause’s fool Feste is almost bellicose, capable of something close to viciousness, joking around while a raincloud hovers over his head. David Bodin’s maltreated Malvolio does not go gently into that comic-foil night. Together, they alter the atmosphere. The stakes are pounded in sharply, and the laughter comes, but nervously.
A little nervousness might help this bright and friendly Much Ado reach a higher (or perhaps a better-rounded) plane, too. Or maybe that’s just the spritz talking.
Much Ado About Nothing continues through August 16 at Post5 Theatre, 1666 S.E. Lambert Street. Ticket and schedule information are here.