Season Opener for Ethington Theatre Proves Worthy of Much Ado
Review by Doug Carroll
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Only one question needs to be asked of any modern reinterpretation of a play from the Shakespearean canon.
Does it work?
Over the years, in an effort to introduce the Bard’s classics to new audiences and enhance their accessibility, different approaches have been tried. For example, “The Taming of the Shrew” was made into a musical. “Twelfth Night” was set in pre-revolutionary Cuba. And, most notably, the Capulets and Montagues of “Romeo and Juliet” became the Sharks and Jets of “West Side Story.”
GCU’s Ethington Theatre Series has gone this way three times since the theatre program was reintroduced in the fall of 2010. First was “The Comedy of Errors,” with a New Orleans Mardi Gras setting, and then “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” given a social-media subtext.
Now comes “Much Ado About Nothing,” wrapped by Dean Claude Pensis in the chaps and pistols of a Western, complete with banjos, square dancing, a saloon and a tough-talking constable.
So, does it work?
Does it ever.
“Much Ado” runs a little long — nearly two and a half hours, including an intermission — but it’s a briskly paced comedy that features the best actors in the College of Fine Arts and Production, how-did-he-do-that scenic magic by Assistant Dean Bill Symington and expert direction by Pensis.
Friday night’s opening performance played to a near-capacity Ethington crowd that enjoyed a little sarsaparilla with its Shakespeare (bottled root beer was sold in the lobby). The story revolves around two couples, Beatrice and Benedick and Claudio and Hero, and the unexpected turns taken by their respective romances. You know it’s going to end well, but it’s a delightful mess getting there.
At the outset, Beatrice (played by Joy Flatz) and Benedick (Drew Swaine) are turned off by the notion of marriage — and specifically by each other. Some of the play’s best lines come from their toe-to-toe exchange of withering insults, and Flatz and Swaine are up to it.
“Hang me on a target and shoot at me,” Benedick says, instructing what must happen if he should ever fall for a woman and demonstrating that commitment phobia isn’t so new after all.
Flatz and her twin sister made a big splash in last season’s musical “The Boy Friend,” and Swaine was outstanding in “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Their pairing in the lead roles is perfect, their peculiar form of chemistry just right. (What’s more, they choreographed the production’s two dance scenes.)
Meanwhile, Claudio (Adam Benavides) and Hero (Ashley Hines), a daffy duo, fall head over heels for each other, thanks to some savvy matchmaking by Don Pedro (Michael Hegeman). However, they’re soon driven apart by the treachery of the evil Don John (a swaggering Josh Vanderpoel). Claudio, believing he has been betrayed by his lover, spews vile accusations at her as they are about to wed.
Benavides, now in his third year at GCU, has shown there’s not a part he can’t play. When his Claudio goes off on Hero, the rage is red-hot. And Hegeman, an adjunct instructor and alumnus, is as steady as Don Pedro as he was in playing the elder statesman of a weird family in “You Can’t Take It With You” last season. He’s a real pro who gives any production balance, and it’s a pleasure watching him work.
Bina Neuwirth, who always throws everything she’s got into a role, nearly steals the show as the dimwitted constable Dogberry. The all-female posse in her charge is even dimmer, and the constable is all bluster while trying to whip the motley crew into shape. Neuwirth’s comic timing is impeccable, and it’s worth it just to hear her character repeatedly mispronounce the word “knave” as “kuh-nave.”
Other roles also benefit from exceptional delivery by Bruce Hendershott (Leonato, Hero’s father), Nathan de Laet (Borachio) and Dan Cocca (Conrade). The depth and maturity of the second- and third-year performers are evident, and this cast is as good as any you’ll find in college theatre. Even the banjo player during the scene changes, Andie Miller, exudes a folksy charm.
Symington, whose sets are consistently spectacular, may have outdone himself this time. Each of the three major structures onstage has a pull-out piece to facilitate a completely different scene. It’s the kind of functional creativity that we have come to expect from his scenic design.
As the new season’s opener, “Much Ado About Nothing” had much to live up to. “The Pirates of Penzance” (2010) and “You Can’t Take It With You” (last year) were strong in the leadoff spot. All three openers have been home runs, and the stage is set for another terrific year at Ethington.
Performances for the final weekend of “Much Ado About Nothing” are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, contact the Ethington box office at 639.8880 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or email@example.com.