Toward the end of Shakespeare’s comedy, Benedick tells Beatrice they are “too wise to woo peaceably.” Up to this point they’ve fought a “merry war”: a Taming of the Shrew of the mind, minus the shrew.
Though both have outsized funny bones (he “is all mirth”; she, “born to speak all mirth and no matter”), they use wit and logic to protect their “wild hearts.” It’s as if they came from a previous play, a potential comedy that ended so miserably that the thought of a happy one triggers alarms.
Everyone else in Sicily, visitors and residents alike, goes giddy at the prospect of romance. Like court jesters with Tourette’s Syndrome, Beatrice and Benedick rail against marriage (and each other’s gender). Beneath these salvos lies a vow: they will never be giddy again.
Young Claudio and Hero do, and almost start a civil war.
One of the strengths of Intrepid Shakespeare’s always competent, sometimes sparkling production is how director Richard Baird points it toward the play B&B “came” from. Much Ado is one of the Bard’s most dramatic comedies: it has courtly wit and funny scenes, but could collapse into tragedy.
Most productions I’ve seen foregrounded the comedy and shoved Claudio and Hero to the side. At Intrepid, Erin Petersen and Charles Evans, Jr. are really hurt. And, given this emphasis, so is her father, Leonato, whom Ruff Yeager turns into a surprisingly Plum Role. Leonato didn’t go to war. Now he hosts the returning soldiers and — part-general, part-devoted-parent — orchestrates a peace-plan (as opposed to a battle-plan) and rights wrongs gone dangerously astray.
Combine his graceful/serious Leonato with his outsized John Barrymore in I Hate Hamlet, and Yeager’s on a heck of a roll!
As is Tom Stephenson. Dogberry’s usually played by an actor trying to be funny: a doofus by design. They say Beatrice turns men inside-out. That’s what Stephenson does. This Dogberry affects a stealthy, mannered, hilariously funny nobility. Though his malapropisms miss their mark — “comparisons are odorous” — he and his fellow constables, who’s collective IQ maxes out this side of three digits, nab the villains.
Sean Yael-Cox's in many ways fine and engaging performance would improve if he made Benedick's logical conclusions more like in-the-moment discoveries.
Shana Wride’s made intriguing choices as Beatrice. As if fueled by repressed sexual energy, she’s in near constant motion, and is far more openly vulnerable than usually played. Some lines get lost in the movement. A lighter attack would keep them alive.
Intrepid set the play in Sicily, 1931. Kristin McReddie’s costumes, especially the detailed uniforms, serve the period well. Brian Mackey’s sound design offers Italian music, live and on tape, Gerilyn Brault’s expressive vocals, and a beautiful duet for “Sigh No More, Ladies.”
In a sense, Much Ado is a preview of coming attractions. Many of the show’s most arresting features are Richard Baird’s directorial touches. As co-founder of the Poor Players, Baird became one of Shakespeare’s foremost local interpreters. His brand-new New Fortune Theatre will stage Henry V on October 25, St. Crispin’s Day.