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Friday, April 16, 2010

American Bard Theater Company Presents:

Review*: Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare presented by the American Bard Theatre Company, Flamboyan Theater at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center April 16-May 1st 2010.

*This review based on a final dress previews for the next three performances and opens Wednesday, April 21st.

In the neighborhood of a Perfect Blue Building and a hot-bed of Cultural Diversity that is 2010 Lower East Side of Manhattan, the American Bard Theater Company has chosen to stage its debut full length Shakespearean production.

Let me first say this is no troupe of wanna-be amateurs. The production values of their Much Ado About Nothing are extraordinarily high; and when you are talking about Shakespeare that means a spotlight squarely and firmly on the language. Directed by Jefferson Slinkard and loosely set in post Spanish Civil War Italy, this Much Ado comes most alive when that loose setting becomes background to the formidable story telling by wonderful actors. Shakespeare in America is almost always a crap shoot, but with The American Bard, you see a group that has been through those tedious stagings of classics and the work they have done in preparation for their own production is immediately apparent. The only laughs to be garnered here are in all the right places.

Like the Public Theater’s recent staging of Othello, there is some interesting non-traditional casting taking place. Unlike the Public, American Bard Theater uses this device to great effect. Damon Kinard as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and Marcus Denard Johnson as his companion Claudio, are both African American actors of impressive stature and verve. They both infuse their characters with life that leaps from the stage. The non-traditional casting comes in the form of Cheri Wicks as Antonia, the Duke’s sister (instead of brother Antonio). When she confronts The Prince and his friend for having shamed Hero at the altar, her use of the word “boy” carries a not so subtle racial insult as befits her rage, yet makes one cringe in our era of political correctness.

Andrew Eiseman has some stellar moments as Benedick. His comic timing is most fun to watch at a hilarious opening to the second act. Natalie Doyle Holmes as Beatrice is caustic with her wit and wisdom, and beautiful to behold as is Tara Henderson as Hero. Bryan L. Cohen is Constable Dogberry, a part he was born to play. He embodies the buffoon of a civil servant to the hilt. Almost a bit over the top, to say he plays a mean trumpet is an understatement. Erin Gilbreth as a guard on Watch is just delightful with her fluffy gray mustache, tin-pail helmet and rolling-pin for a weapon; she embodies the spirit of play for which Shakespeare is famous.

This is not to say the production is without flaws. Costuming the Bastard Don John in a period Fascist Uniform and having him hold a copy of Mein Kampf complete with red cover and black swastika is a bit heavy handed especially when there is no obvious political symbolism in counter point. Aptly played by Clint Morris, John and his co-horts played by Jack Herholdt and Evan Scott Schweitzer reek of maliciousness by virtue of their spot on delivery of the text. Schweitzer, Betina Joly and Garciany Miranda prove the old adage “there are no small parts” by playing their bits with skill and the enthusiasm required of a successful ensemble.

Ross Hewitt plays a credible Governor and while Mary Riley sings beautifully and is stunning decked out in her red dress as Margaret, there is no costume change for her, other than a period hair net, when she switches roles to play the local judge. The set by Sheila Phalon is simple; I especially love the center fountain with what appears to my failing eyes as a green frog with a crown on its head. Costumes were most effective when not trying to evoke a specific era; I loved them for the most part except for the fact that the Prince had private-first-class stripes on his sleeves. The players were well lit at all times thanks to lighting designer Jeffrey Whitsett. Overall, this is an effort worthy of attendance by those who love Shakespeare and an auspicious start for this company.

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