Telluride Theatre: “Much Ado About Nothing,” Much To Enjoy!

Telluride Theatre’s “Shakespeare in the Park” features “Much Ado About Nothing.” Open Saturday, July 19 through Saturday, July 26. Rain or shine. (No show Wednesday, July 23). Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets here.

All is not fair in love and war. And both momentous events defy reason. Which is reason enough for the Bard to have written a play that is mostly a comedy about war and love and their persistent handmaidens, delusion and deception, self and otherwise.much ado

As directed by guest talent Anthony Luciano, Telluride Theatre’s high-spirited adaptation of Shakespeare’s mid-career comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is more about its ebullient characters than plot, with veteran Telluride actors turning in some of their best, read believable, performances ever and newbies, including a 13-year-old aspiring actress, Gabrielle Chamberlain, all showing great promise too.

“Much Ado” is also about balloons: Anthony employs them as clever and colorful metaphors for the vulnerability intrinsic to states of war and love – or warring love: a small prick in the skin, tiny hands doing their worst, game over. And there were many tiny hands attached to tiny people in the house on opening night, which only added to the general merriment that surrounded a production that was often just this side of the high-energy antics of the Marx Brothers or Monty Python – and equally over-the-top delightful. What’s more, the complicity between creators and observers, actors and spectators that must be there for theatre to work, that necessary bond, was forged from the get-go and intensified as the story unfolded, in part because the boundary between action and audience is blurred in a theatre-in-the-round setting. Suffice to say, “Much Ado” should be made of the fact the 23rd Shakespeare-in-the-Park production is not to be missed.

Anthony chose to set his “Much Ado” in the present. We know that for sure because of the costumes (by the talented Melissa Harris, who went grunge, corporate, Annie Hall and ‘70s) and the presence of cameras and reporters to record the action suggesting, what?, events being recorded for a reality TV show?, or simply the fact that celebrities such as the play’s nobles can never escape the limelight. As far as we know there were no paparazzi in the Bard’s day. At least none with cameras. We also know that the day and age does not matter a hoot because Shakespeare’s plots are timeless: “Much Ado’s” themes – the Great Duality known as the Battle of the Sexes, honor, shame, court politics, sibling rivalry – resonate as vibrantly now as then. Setting the production in the present simply underscored that obvious fact.

“Much Ado” opens with soldiers returning from some battle, and war and its aftermath is another key plot theme.

The opening scene set at the dawn of a new peace, however tenuous, in a no-name place (the minimal, effective and efficient design by Scott Harris) and presents a society of women and older men: Ashley Boling as the handsome, earnest governor and father Leonato; his loyal, loving sister Ursula, the steadfast Linda Levin; his daughter Hero, the lovely newcomer to the Telluride stage, Sara Ciaverelli, perfectly cast as a poster child for innocent beauty; and his niece Beatrice, the irrepressible Layna Fisher, whom we suspect is playing herself: a tough-talking, sharp-witted, wisecracking, sexy dame not unlike the heroines Hepburn and Stanwyck brought to the silver screen.

This is a world waiting for the return of youth and love. Enter the Prince, Don Pedro (a dashing, slightly arrogant, totally in control Peter Lundeen), who leads a testosterone-fueled charge into the peaceful little town. The boys in his band include Don Pedro’s dastardly half-brother, the archvillan Don John (Telluride Theatre’s executive director Colin Sullivan, turning in yet another perfectly pitched performance, this time as a poisonous viper).

A classic malcontent, Don John is jealous of Don Pedro (for reasons Shakespeare never wholly reveals) and anyone in his orb, but especially his young protege, the valorous Claudio (a nuanced performance by Evan MacMillan, who plays a naif, yes, but one rubbing shoulders with real moxie). Benedick of Padua is also in that fraternity.

Benedick is Buff Hooper, a familiar, popular face to Telluride audiences, gives his most self-possessed, convincing performance to date as an overgrown clown, socially sophisticated, sexually experienced, prejudiced against marriage, but not flirtation and lovemaking, in other words, a classic bad boy most women find irresistible.

What unfolds among the gathered crowd is largely a great play about a reprehensible social pastime: gossip. Everything is overheard, misheard or constructed on purpose for spying and eavesdropping.

Details aside, the pretended indifference of Beatrice and Benedick is the heart and soul of “Much Ado.”

No doubt Beatrice is the cleverest speaker in the house, but perhaps too clever by half: she might never get a husband because she is “so shrewd of tongue.” And that vulnerability, including her total dependence on Uncle Leonato for a roof over her head and food to eat, may explain why over her costumes, she wears a protective carapace, poking her head out like a turtle only on those rare occasions when she feels safe. As for Benedick, well, Buff plays him as a worthy adversary, but one resigned to the fact he will almost always be put down:“a man is never more a fool than when he enters into a wit-duel with a brilliant woman.”  The key to the production’s success lies in the dynamic between this couple, who charge their insults with so much ardor we the audience realize just how much they would miss their verbal duels if circumstances tore them apart.

The dynamic between Beatrice and Benedick, Layna and Buff, begs comparison to the Bard’s leads in “Taming of the Shrew.” Don John’s presence in the story, on the other hand, conjures Cassio in the tragedy “Othello,” whose malevolence towards Claudio may be because the young man stole his mentor’s (Don Pedro) regard and affection. “That young start-up hath all the glory of my overthrow,” John whines to his man, Borachio, whose name means “the drunken one.” (Borachio is Dalton Metz, who alternates between greedy sycophant and repentant team player).

Another reason for the success of Telluride Theatre’s “Much Ado” is Anthony’s decision to eschew dusty museum acting in favor of flesh-and-blood performances by his actors. In other words, feelings, however crudely or hesitantly expressed, trump words for the words’ sake. One of the best examples of that came from James Van Hooser’s performance as DogBerry, the malaproping, oafish village constable. James is a natural for low comedy and burlesque. We first saw him in “Urinetown,” where he played a would- be killer with gusto. This time he turns in a killer performance, nearly stealing the show when on stage.

When musical virtuoso Ethan Hale sings or plays an instrument accompanied by David Laudendale – and he plays several well –  we bet the birds in the night sky stopped to listen. Choreographer Lyndia Peralta’s fetes and dances are both delightful and poignant, the constant movement underlining the instability of a world that seesaws between war and peace, love and hate.

Anthony Luciano’s ‘Much Ado” features people we know or would like to know in situations we can easily recognize – which is yet another reason why the opening night audience was so thoroughly engaged.

We anticipate more good news from Telluride Theatre when artistic director, Sasha Sullivan, mounts this year’s original play, “Bread and Circus.” Coming soon to a local Mountain Village venue starting August 22.

Book “Much Ado” now. On Saturday night, about 20 people had to be turned away.

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