There are so many wonderful things that define William Shakespeare and his work.
History, high drama, inventive and beautiful language.
His works are not, however, a Marx Brothers comedy or a Three Stooges outing.
This simple lesson is germane in the aftermath of the disappointing and overly-caffeinated opening of “Much Ado About Nothing,” the eighth free Shakespeare effort of Optimist Theatre.
This play, written 400 years ago, is one of the most frequently performed works of Shakespeare and it has a proud and distinguished history. The sorrow is that the Optimist production, under the direction of Tom Reed, goes for some kind of slapstick approach that does disservice to the script and to the audience.
It’s almost as if the company, which should be lauded for its annual effort to bring Shakespeare to the people free of charge, tried to do something so different that the heart and soul of the play was lost.
The story of the play is a familiar one.
Beatrice (Kelley Faulkner) and Benedick (Todd Denning) are one couple headed (as everyone knows) to a joyful union. The other couple is Claudio (Di’Monte Henning) and Hero (Candace Thomas).
Strewn through the play are the warrior prince Don Pedro (Michael Stebbins), his illegitimate brother Don John (Jonathan Wainwright), Hero’s father Leonato (David Flores) and assorted other scamps and scoundrels.
The themes of mistaken identities and gossip that is heard, acted upon and eventually debunked, are common themes in Shakespeare’s work.
The joy and strength of any Shakespearean comedy is unlike our definition of comedy. In his day a comedy didn’t have to be funny all the time, it just needed to have a happy ending to qualify.
Many scholars have written extensively about what we see in a comedy by Shakespeare. One thing stands out above all. The comedy comes from situations rather than characters. It is issues and themes that draw in an audience, not the antics of a clown.
And Reed has crafted a production that changes characters from sensitive people with depth and dimension into cardboard cutouts at a circus.
The list of offenses is a long one and is broken only occasionally.
Let’s start with Denning, a gifted actor with a wide range of skills. Here he is reduced to a mugging his way through his determination to never marry until he decides that Beatrice is just right for him. And Faulkner manages to find little of the vibrant personality of Beatrice and none of the self-consciousness mixed with determination that this lady has.
This is a couple where sparks need to fly but there was almost no chemistry between them.
Thomas and Henning, the other lovers, each miss their mark by a mile. Thomas moves from the shy and stunted girl to the violently angry maiden without any seeming reason. Henning couldn’t find any of the humanity in Claudio who wasn’t just a scoundrel but was just a kid trying to play in the big leagues.
And Stebbins, who you might expect to have the kind of fire that a conquering Prince would have, instead provides the kind of wooden cutout that served only to confuse.
The entire evening was so off the charts that actually figuring out what was supposed to be going on became an awful exercise in futility.
There were, to be sure some bright spots . Flores delivers his usual solid performance and James Pickering’s Dogberry was an example to all the young actors in the cast of what you can do with training, experience and talent. Wainwright has the kind of presence on a stage that is a strong addition to any production.
I have great admiration for Optimist and the people who work so hard to keep it going. They’ve moved from a courtyard at Alverno to the splendor of Kadish Park and are now at the Peck Pavilion at the Marcus Center. It’s a great space and I hope that the company can live up to this platform.
I’m not about to tell them how to produce plays, but I do think that getting some other eyes to lead the way might be a good idea. I would say the same thing about any company, including the big theaters in town.
Having artistic directors direct every performance is not doing any favors either to the material or the audience. Plays benefit profoundly from new ideas and interpretations.
I hope that Optimist gets through this run, which lasts through July 22 and comes back next year with the kind of power inherent in Shakespeare.
Production credits: Director, Tom Reed; Co-Director and Dramaturg: ML Cogar; Production Stage Manager, Rebekah Heusel; Set Design and Production Manager, Ron Scot Fry; Sound Designer, Megan B. Menninger; Lighting Designer, Colin Gawronski; Costume Designer, Christy Seibers; Composer and Musician, Paul Terrien; Props Mistress, Tania Taylor; choreographer, Gennesee Spridco; Stitcher, Amber Jackson; Wardrobe, Katy Lane; Stage Management Apprentice; Desiree Stypinski; Assistant Sound Designer, Melissa Nilles.