By: Angela Guardiani
Much Ado About Nothing sounds like it would be one of Shakespeare's lighter, fluffier pieces, and certainly it's been produced that way. Joss Whedon's 2012 film adaptation was a cheerful, modern screwball comedy, and way back in 1993, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a high-energy period piece. Both films are light-filled, set respectively in Los Angeles and Tuscany. This is a play about love, after all, about mistaken identities, about everything coming out fine at the end. It's no wonder the show has such an affinity for the sun. But what's happening in Unit 102 Actors Co. and Leroy Street Theatre's production is a little different. It's Much Ado with a shadow side. It's very funny and a little heartbreaking, completely entertaining but grounded in truth. Staged in the indoor/outdoor space of Majlis Art Garden, this play is a winner.
First, the story. Hero, the lovely daughter of Leonato, is in love with Claudio, a handsome young soldier in the company of Don Pedro. He loves her, too. The young lovers are soon betrothed. To while away the week before they marry, their mischievous group of friends tries to reunite Beatrice, Hero's sharp-tongued cousin, with Benedick, Don Pedro's equally snarky right-hand man. Don Pedro's villainous half-brother Don John can't stand to see such happiness and arranges to smear Hero's virginal reputation by making it seem that she has been entertaining men in her bedroom (it was actually Hero's maid Margaret, but it's Shakespeare; everyone looks the same in the dark here). As the story unfolds, lovers are united and wrong-doers are punished.
Much Ado lives or dies on the strength of its main couple. Beatrice and Benedick have lines and lines of quick-witted banter, wisecracks, and wordplay that need to be delivered with deft comic timing, but their characters have to carry emotional weight, too. They're well-served here. Anne van Leeuwen is tart but not bitter, throwing off zingers with a Beyonce-ish Single Lady verve – self-confident, take-no-guff, here for a good time. Scott Walker treats Benedick like everybody's best buddy who's just come off a bad breakup – funny, fast-paced, endlessly entertaining but with a streak of hurt running underneath everything. Both of them hurl witticisms at each other like plates at a Greek wedding, but after the spectacular crash, what really comes through in quieter moments is their wistfulness and yearning. Beatrice and Benedick try to talk themselves into confirmed singlehood, but are so quick to believe the exaggerated stories they're fed of how the other is pining for them. You can't help but see how ready they are to love and be loved again.
That hint of sadness is carried through in the B-plot of Hero & Claudio's love affair. Unlike the film versions of these characters, director James Graham has made it clear that this couple is much younger than Beatrice and Benedick. Christopher Manousos is full of puppyish charm as Claudio while Clair Bastable's Hero is a fresh-faced girl, dancing with the sheer delight of being alive as the play opens. They love absolutely and completely, as first loves do – no shadows in their courtship. As the play progresses, though, their relationship becomes more complicated. I really appreciate the artistic choices Graham, Manousos, and Bastable made.
This production is really funny. Chloe Sullivan and Melissa Williams steal the second act as a pair of jumped-up Girl Guides drunk on law and order (they're actually the constable Dogberry and her toady Verges, but trust me on this comparison). The whole cast, including the bit players, work well together and clearly get that fine line where physical humour crosses into high camp. They know how to goof around and they know where to stop.
A quick word on the venue; Majlis Art Garden is hidden away in an industrial-ish area a bit south of Trinity Bellwoods. I've been visiting the area for years and had no idea that a small outdoor theatre was there. You enter through a garden gate into a petite stage with only three rows of seats. The actors are barely an arm's length away. As the sun sets, the fairy lights come on. It's all the good things of the Dream in High Park – the summer twilight, the thrill of outdoor theatre – but minus the crowds. You might want to bring a cushion – the show's about two hours and the seats have no padding – but in a nice touch, the company handed out blankets to anyone in the audience who felt chilly.
Much Ado About Nothing plays at The Majlis Art Garden until June 26, 2016. Tickets are $25 and are available at the door or at brownpapertickets.com.
Angela Guardiani is a lady of strong opinions who lives and teaches ESL in Toronto. She is a food lover, grammar nerd, book junkie, and will try anything once. Follow her enthusiastic but sporadic tweets at @minorgoddess.