Let’s start out with what I absolutely loved about Richmond Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing:” TJ Simmons as Benedict and Sarah Johnson as Beatrice. The adjective that comes to my mind when thinking about both of their performances may seem a little odd, but it’s “crisp.” By that, I mean that their acting choices were communicated clearly and forcefully, without the meander that can creep in when wrestling with Shakespeare’s sometimes dense and circuitous language. They are both such winning actors as well, incredibly good-looking, and supremely at ease on stage (and, in Simmons’ case, offstage wandering around the crowd as well).
Their performances were both enhanced by their physicality. Simmons communicated so much with his posture, his hang-dog look when discussing love, his ramrod straight back when confronting Claudio. Johnson showed a propensity for physical comedy I hadn’t seen before, particularly in her eavesdropping scene. I kept trying to think of a big-screen actress that Johnson reminded me of and all I could conjure up was a composite: I think she marries the striking good looks of comic actresses like Amanda Bynes or Katherine Heigel with the physicality of someone like Carol Burnett. Quite a powerful combo if you ask me.
Other people I think are worth mentioning: though she doesn’t have a big part here, I think I’d enjoy Stacie Rearden Hall act in just about anything. She’s one of those performers who is just so incredibly ‘on’ whenever she’s on stage. I think Alana Smith may be another in that category, though her part was even smaller and that much harder to judge.
I grow increasingly impressed with David White, so fantastic but unfortunately largely overlooked in Sycamore Rouge’s “Night of January 16th” over the summer and convincingly princely here. Alan Sader was wonderful as Leonato; Ms. Haubenstock’s characterization of his portrayal as “warm and hearty” is spot on.
I was highly entertained by this production – and I was thrilled that my teenage daughter saw it with me. I think Grant Mudge has a unique ability for staging Shakespeare in a way that can be engaging for the young, or the young at heart. His stage tableau of “see no evil…” in the second act prince’s watch scene is emblematic of this ability.
Having said that, there were some aspects of the production I was a little disappointed with. While their individual performances were entrancing, I have to agree with Ms. Haubenstock that Simmons and Johnson did not seem as entralled with each other as they were with their individual emotional turmoil. Almost conversely, I thought Liz Blake and Jonathan Conyers made a smashing couple but neither of them made much of an impression on me individually. Perhaps the critic in me always pines for that impossibly perfect marriage of the solo and the pair performance…
And while others have raved about Bob Jones – and I had my share of guffaws thanks to him – I was a little tired of the schtick by about the third “call me an ass.” He was allowed to show more depth in “Henry V” and I liked him better for it. The production’s set was fairly plain. I liked the balconies and all but if the most prominent aspect of the set is going to be a big wall, the mostly blank expanse at the Gottwald paled in comparison to Agecroft or even the sanctuary at Second Pres.
Finally, while as I’ve said I generally enjoyed Mr. Mudge’s direction, there were some times that I thought the production teetered just on the edge of too antic. I guess I saw this most specifically when the darker elements of the play were introduced, primarily by the smoldering Billy Christopher Maupin as Don John, and they contrasted so starkly with the more playful scenes. It may be a bit of a lame criticism – “I loved the antic energy except for when it was too antic.” I recognize it’s a hard and fine balance to strike, but still, I can’t deny I was left wishing it had been better struck.
OK, I’ve rambled long enough and there is plenty I didn’t mention (Oh! The music – awesome! Makes the evening a great deal of fun.) Overall, a great effort and one that I’ve already recommended to several people. There is some tough competition from the folk festival this weekend. I hope it continues to draw well because it’s a production I think people should see – and a fine way to inaugurate the CenterStage space.