by Terrance Mc Arthur
It’s a happy day on the beach in Long Beach, California, when the fleet returns in 1944 in the Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s light-hearted season closer, Much Ado About Nothing, playing on the Festival Stage in Fresno through August 25.
William Shakespeare’s mid career comedy tells of a returning warrior’s impending marriage upended by the schemes of a bitter comrade. But the most popular storyline is the frenemies Beatrice and Benedick, who love to insult each other until they are tricked into thinking each is secretly in love with the other. It’s all about hearing something and believing it, even if it isn’t true. Yes, it’s a play about fake news.
Casey Ballard, who has played everyone from Viola in Twelfth Night to Iago in Othello, commands the stage as Beatrice. Acerbic, witty, and awfully attractive, the character is happily single and living her own life. Ballard throws off one-liners like they flowed from her soul. Imagine Joan Rivers without the raspiness.
Ballard’s opponent: Quincy Maxwell as Benedick. He is wide-mouthed and rubber-limbed, and his expansive reactions are a contrast to Ballard’s cool speaking style. Director Summer Session gives them both physical comedy routines on the level of Lucille Ball. In parallel sequences, each hides behind everything from beach balls and umbrellas to any actor caught onstage with them in their quests to hear tidbits that people deliberately want them to hear. In this battle of the sexes, the winner is…..Who cares! Both Maxwell and Ballard are just so much fun to watch!
Fresh from her triumph in 2nd Space’s The Heiress, Suzanne Grazyna is effervescent and shimmers as Leonato, governor of Messina (Sorry—make that Long Beach). As WSF often does, the character has been gender-switched, but to good effect. Leonato’s shock and reactions to the accusations of the daughter’s indiscretions are amplified when it is a mother-daughter situation. Grazyna is so winning that the audience longs to give her a romantic storyline, maybe with the handsome naval officer she regards as a good friend.
Don Pedro (referred to as Don Peter), a stalwart naval commander, is Andrew Trevino, a well-built gentleman, which is accented by the beach locale and the opportunities the director takes to have men strut about shirtless. Trevino is masculine and of a kind authority, but not above having a little fun by tricking Benedick into falling in love.
Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John, is a smoldering Rodolfo Robles Cruz, puffing on cigarettes that never glow as he lays his evil plans. He’s smug, impressive, and worth watching. Josh Slack as Friar Francis has a nobility and gravitas that takes your everyday interrupted wedding and raises it to a higher level. Alex Serrano as Balthasar and other characters plays a mellow guitar that adds to each scene he underscores.
Claudio (James Anderson) and Hero (Julia Prieto) made a fine couple. Prieto is demure as she is wooed by Claudio, yet spunky as she helps fool her own cousin into loving Benedick. Anderson plays a more forceful character than he did in Othello, but both roles are snared in another’s web of lies.
Cha Yang finally gets a WSF opportunity to shine as Dogberry, a constable conjugating more confusion than the criminals he catches. He adroitly mangles words, even when he is untangling the plot and revealing the real villains.
It’s comedy, folks. The only tragedy here is how few people come to see free Shakespeare in the park. Woodward Park entrance is $5, but the theatre is close enough to free parking across Friant that the walk is reasonable. Of course, donations are welcome (Give what it’s worth to you…and maybe a bit more). Showtime is 8 p.m., as the sun sets and the breezes start. Light jackets are good to add to your picnic basket. By 10 p.m., you’ll be on your way, with all the cares of the world washed away. Will Shakespeare can do that for you.
Much Ado About Nothing runs through August 25. For info and tickets check the website.
Casey Ballard will be in one of KRL’s new Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcasts, coming up later this summer. The first 3 episodes have already aired. You can check the podcast out on iTunes and Google Play, and also on podbean.
Check out more theatre reviews & other local entertainment articles in our Arts & Entertainment section.