Producing a play shares similarities with cooking a perfect soufflé. Carefully selected, measured ingredients get mixed with scientific precision (with a master chef or director’s signature touch) and then “baked” at the right temperature for an exact duration. Removed carefully from the “oven” and presented elegantly to its audience at table (or in the theatre), the one of a kind creation delights all who behold it. Craft and skill unify under the magical essence of artistic creation. Once consumed, its fond memory lives on as inspiration. The description applies aptly to many stage productions mounted by Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, including its current, first ever Shakespeare offering, the well-loved comedy “Much Ado About Nothing”, running through February 23, in co-production with Theatre OCU (Oklahoma City University). Add regional leading stage director Rene Moreno to the mix, and the recipe excels. CityRep serves up a delicate, delectable “Much Ado”, a tasty trifle concocted from equal parts wit, farce, intrigue and Ragtime ambience, crowned with a giddy dollop of Cupid’s special love potion. “Thespian chef” Rene Moreno earns his master toque again.
Setting his production in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, at the turn of the 19th century, Moreno envisions Benedick and Claudio as dashing cavalry soldiers who become unexpected courtiers wooing elegant, spirited Edwardian ladies of fashion. OCU professor/designer Ashley Bellet costumes the cast of twenty-seven actors, ranging from nationally respected professionals to college students, in great detail — fanciful, romantic attire that enhances the giddiness of Shakespeare’s script and plays up the production’s Ragtime exuberance. She dresses the play’s “watch” in Keystone Cop-style uniforms (perfect for a Chaplin-esque strobe light chase sequence, lighting design by Luke Gerhardt). City Rep Associate Artist Ben Hall’s scenic design builds around an ornate garden pagoda upstage center, flanked by tall trees. Freestanding columns, benches, shrubs and arbors scatter about the garden, providing ample room for spirited ensemble dancing (choreographed by Jeremy Dumont) while offering ideal locales for romantic lurking about and intrigue. “We are the only love gods!” declaims sober, kindly Don Pedro (a proper, courtly Michael Corrolla), defining the production’s flamboyant tone amidst the manicured profusion of verdant splendor. This soufflé whets all visual appetite.
And now for the palate…
Shakespeare lovers often describe “Much Ado About Nothing” as their “favorite” Shakespeare play. “Bard-o-phile” patrons who haven’t seen it before will likely become fans. People who will attend a production or film of it any time, any place presented, go to see wickedly spirited Beatrice and pompous, confirmed bachelor Benedick exercise wits by lobbing clever insults at each other until the machinations of their friends turn their razor-edged barbs into Cupid’s darts. It’s gratifying to see these two disdainful, verbose wordsmiths grow mutually smitten with great hilarity. Consequently, no matter how wonderful all the other elements of the play may be, the script REQUIRES a strong pair of actors to pull this off. CityRep’s production came up with a tasty blend with one caveat. As Benedick, director Moreno cast handsome professional Lane Fields. He struts like a self-assured banty rooster, with taunts and sarcastic retorts flying off his tongue like confetti, all the while conveying the sense of a man of genuine character beneath the “punnery”. It’s lovely to see him duped, and then come to his senses, then behave like an exemplary gentleman defending a wronged damsel. And his sexy grin could launch many a ship. As Beatrice, Moreno cast CityRep favorite daughter and longtime professional Stacey Logan. A superior actress in every way, utterly committed to any role, Logan portrays Beatrice as a firebrand with a golden heart. All well, except she seems noticeably older than Lane Fields. My critic’s “believability” meter chirped a few times while watching her, particularly when Logan affected a “girlish” manner. This made me scrutinize the age difference when Logan played scenes with her cousin Hero, who Moreno cast with the exquisitely beautiful OCU junior Lauren Grace Thompson. Cousins, maybe thirty plus years apart? It’s a small point to quibble over, but I don’t think Shakespeare wrote “cougar” roles. If Fields had been costumed and made up to appear older as Benedick, I would not have noticed the difference between Beatrice and Hero as much. Yet, Logan’s acting remains beyond reproach. Thompson broke hearts with her alluring portrayal of Cecily in City Rep/OCU’s lauded production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” last year. This young lady holds her own with the seasoned pros, in character depth and style. Director Moreno cast OCU senior Alex Enterline as Hero’s perfectly matched amour. Enterline’s Claudio falls in love with Hero almost past distraction, then loses his grip on reality through chicanery, atones for it and redeems himself, while never playing a gullible, mean-spirited, undeserving goon as is sometimes the case. Like many OCU theatre graduates, his star’s trajectory will become worth following.
The other element the play’s fans wait for is to see how the comic relief “watch”, the bumbling town policemen, and their captain Dogberry with his ancient, doddering assistant Verges, get utilized. Costuming them as a version of the Keystone Cops places them in the Ragtime era and employs the play’s broad, mocking humor in full excess with plenty of pratfalls, providing pleasing contrast to the lofty refinements of love’s ‘honorable’ pursuit. Multi-talented Ben Hall (also City Rep’s scenic designer) evokes a remarkable, vocabulary-challenged Dogberry, urging everyone in hailing distance to attend to his infamous request and “write me down an ass” with unabashed narcissism and ignorance. CityRep’s audience cheers the bungling cops on with gales of laughter and intense applause at curtain call. Last but not least, the blackguard Don John sulks and schemes his way into almost wrecking the play’s merry resolution, as played with vigilant menace by sterling character actor Christopher Curtis. Seasoned City Rep professionals and talented OCU students round out the fine ensemble with joyous energy and focus, proving once again that “there are no small roles, just small actors.” And that’s how to bake a perfect soufflé, CityRep style.
CityRep tickets: www.cityrep.com (405) 297-2264
Performances at the Oklahoma City Civic Center
The “Much Ado About Nothing” acting ensemble includes Steve Emerson, Michael Jones, D. Lance Marsh, Aaron Wertheim, Sarah D’Angelo, Jasmine Richman, Marcellus Hankins, Shawn Churchman, JD Wigham, Tomer Butnaru, Nathan Dunn, Conner Branson, Daniel C. Brown, Brendan Kane, Dominic Rosas, Alexis Graves, Brett Holleman, Tanner Bradshaw, Lana Whittington and Cria Ama.
This review also appears in part on TheaterJones.com