Most agree William Shakespeare was brilliant. Unfortunately this can be the playwright's undoing.
All too often actors appear content to serve as conduits for his genius rather than embodiments of his achievement. His tales are profoundly human but actors, daunted by the profundity of his insights, whether comedic or dramatic, fail to imbue his characters with the full spectrum of human qualities the playwright has only synthesized in his dialogue.
If an actor appears awed by the playwright's verbal prowess rather than appreciative of the characters Shakespeare created the audience is being shortchanged.
If the Bard's dialogue is relied upon to fully communicate the essence of the characters whilst the players function as little more than costumed bodies with name tags it's not a play, it's a homage.
This is what makes the Georgia Shakespeare Festival's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" absolutely splendid. It isn't about the playwright, it's about Benedick (Chris Kayser) and Beatrice (Carolyn Cook).
Two of Atlanta's best, Kayser and Cook take the written ingredients and create an intoxicating champagne of effervescent giddiness.
Beatrice is an irascible proto-feminist. However, though her mind is as sharp as her tongue we know her spirit is pure and unburdened by artifice. She may decry affairs of the heart ("I had rather my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.") but since it's a Shakespearean comedy it's a safe bet Cupid's arrows will soon be flying in her direction.
Shakespeare sets the stage in Act I, Scene I when Beatrice's uncle Leonato (Bruce Evers) points out:
There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her: they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them.
It doesn't take long for Beatrice to reveal her disdain for Benedick in the lacerating savagery of her drollery:
In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one! So that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse?
But pay this abrasiveness little mind for as I said, Cupid's got his game face on and there's magic in the air. How many doubt these two are made for each other?
Typical Shakespeare, a significant portion of the play is about uniting two people avowedly committed to parrying the god of love's every blow.
Cook's Beatrice is a real person; she's a charming, self-confident vixen one minute and befuddled by love's complexities the next. Like a violin virtuoso Cook takes a genius' composition and imbues it with the spontaneity that defines art. Thus, the composition is born anew, reinterpreted and rendered fresh once more.
And while Kayser's embodiment of the caustic confirmed bachelor Benedick is Beatrice's equal in every respect, the actor's gift for physical humor makes his performance better still. Mind you, it is not experienced as ego driven, an attempt to draw attention away from his fellow actors and toward himself; Kayser's just a very, very funny clown when he chooses to be.
Watching Benedick respond to the machinations of his friends as they conspire to unite Benedick with Beatrice is hilarious.
Adults seeking several hours of uproarious laughter would do well to abjure the two-dimensional mediocrity of the majority of current films and revel in the real instead.
And as for junior, kids over the age of 13 (That is to say those aware of the vicissitudes endured by the heart in its quest for union.), they will delight in the frivolity. Slyboots that you parents are, little Fescue and Butterbean will not only have a ball enjoying all the antics (and bit of heart-wrenching drama as well), but they'll come away from the theater never realizing their cultural awareness has been elevated (and perhaps their grades improved?).
The youngsters will, however, miss many of the playwright's ribald puns. No doubt Kenny Leon, the director, is ultimately responsible for the actor's gleefully wicked articulation of Shakespeare's salacious double entendres.
It is the nature of the playwright's art that he can hide these amusing acknowledgements of the adult obsession with sexuality within such tomfoolery. The cast, through at times the broadest of burlesques, enables virtually anyone who has dabbled in the sweet mysteries of life to appreciate the stuff they never pointed out to you in high school.
In like manner, Leon sees to it that the counterbalancing dark side of the play is accentuated. This is manifest in Don John (Chris Ensweiler), the bastard brother of Don Pedro (Brad Sherrill).
As Shakespeare draws much of his dramatic tension from the conflict of opposites one must anticipate the existence of a character such as Don John. In this particular play the wretch we love to hate is a venomous conniver who exists only to wreak havoc.
To watch Ensweiler is to be convinced of the actor's misanthropy, so real is his character's malevolence.
Other wonderful performances are provided by Hudson Adams as Antonio, John Ammerman as Dogberry, Tracey Copeland as Hero and Carena Crowell as Ursula.
This is a superlative production, rife with convincing portrayals. To this is added an imaginative set (Vicki Davis), innovative music (Dwight Andrews), and deliriously creative choreography (Jerylan Waren).
This production of "Much Ado About Nothing" is an across-the-board success and demands your attendance. Don't forget the kids.