From Shaw’s “Pygmalion” to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” we, as audiences, love to see confirmed bachelors or bachelorettes inveigled into marriage. The more louche or outré the singleton the better. It somehow ratifies the sweetness, rightness and inevitability of our own domestic arrangements while at the same time flattering us that under our humdrum exterior might beat a hidden, rakish (or at least eccentric) heart.
Two repertory season-openers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) Bowmer Theatre cater to this penchant with tightly choreographed elan — Shakespeare’s tragicomic “Much Ado about Nothing” and the iconic 1950’s American musical “Guys and Dolls.” Although generically different and more than four centuries apart, both plays are premised on similar plotlines: improbable pairings undertaken on a dare and culminating in double marriages.
Oddly, the older play, “Much Ado,” feels more contemporary, once you get used to the American-accented Elizabethan English. This may partly owe to director Lillian Blain-Cruz’ production choices. Male roles mostly dress in military flash — everything from camo fatigues to parade uniforms. Female costumes range from organdy frills to casual gym wear. The set is an abstract bower of dangling pink petals.
But, beyond these details of decor, what could be more modern — or post-modern, even — than the way these characters lurch between snark, sentimentalism and righteous umbrage? The two protagonists, Beatrice, niece of an Italian grandee, and Benedick, a demobilized war hero, start out by trading insults in the hectoring, staccato cadences of a hip-hop “yo mamma” duel. But they’re stuck with each other as they’re on call to be bridesmaid and groomsman, respectively, at the upcoming marriage of Beatrice’s cousin, Hero.
Others in the wedding party, to while away the pre-nuptial hours, plot to dupe B&B into believing that each secretly carries a torch for the other. The ruse becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But what really cements their bond is when they come together to defend Hero from a false accusation of unchastity. In the end, the slanderers are unveiled by a pair of bumbling Keystone cops and all weddings go forward as planned.
What fuels any staging of “Much Ado” is the chemistry between the two lead actors. Christiana Clark, as Beatrice, and Danforth Comins, as Benedick, rev this year’s Ashland production with a high-octane blend. She’s sassy and waspish, but with a hint of underlying vulnerability. And he’s so bemused by his own banter that his switch from tart wisecracks to sweet nothings seems just another turn of the repartee.
But they take on a new gravitas when they rally around Beatrice’s cousin. And Hero, as played by OSF neophyte Leah Anderson, evolves from a ditzy ingenue in the opening scenes to a semi-tragic maiden wronged.
Regan Linton, another Ashland newcomer, plays the villain of the piece, Don John, the bastard brother of Benedick’s commander. It’s a master-stroke of casting: the role has been transgendered into a wheelchair-bound bastard sister in combat fatigues, hinting at a darker back-story to her dog-in-the-manger spite against all the gauzy courtiers and beribboned war vets around her.
The nightwatch clowns are a stitch. Rex Young, as captain of the guard, delivers his malapropisms from atop a zippy Segway, running literal and rhetorical circles around his deputy (who’s also his mother), the diminutive Eileen DeSandre.
There’s almost a glut of this sort of physical comedy. Other examples include Benedick’s famous “love may transform me to an oyster” monologue delivered in the context of a workout gym, or the wedding guests plotting their ruse against B&B in the course of a fraternity keg party. Cleverly conceived and faultlessly executed, these stunts are sure-fire crowd pleasers. Still, “Much Ado” is, after all, one of Shakespeare’s most verbally dazzling plays. It can stand on its own without quite so many sight gags.
On the other hand, a visual sumptuousity only enhances the verbal virtuosity of “Guys and Dolls” in this year’s Ashland production. Director Mary Zimmerman has given free rein to choreographer Doug Peck, set designer Daniel Ostling and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld to turn the Bowmer stage into a kaleidoscope of color, texture, light and motion.
Such diversionary razzmatazz is needed, as the action makes no sense at all — unsurprisingly, since it’s a pastiche of old Damon Runyon yarns about Broadway gamblers and gangsters of the 1920’s. Composer-lyricist Frank Loesser created a suite of amazingly lyrical and literate songs for the show even before he’d been given a firm character list or plot line. Script-writer Abe Burrows then strung it all together with witty and occasionally poetic dialogue.
The story, such as it is, involves craps-shooter Nathan Detroit (Rodney Gardiner) and his fiancee of 14 years, chorus girl Adelaide (Robin Goodrin Nordli). She wants him to forsake his gambling ways and settle down, but he needs first to stage one last round of New York’s “oldest permanent floating craps game.” That requires money to rent a venue, so he concocts what he thinks is a no-lose sporting proposition. He’ll bet his high-rolling crony Sky Masterson (Jeremy Peter Johnson) can’t win a dinner date with strait-laced Sister Sarah (Kate Hurster) of the local Gospel Mission.
Sky takes the dare and persuades Sarah to join him for dinner — in decadent 1920’s Havana, no less. The quid pro quo is that Sky must deliver a dozen dyed-in-the-wool sinners to Sarah’s next Gospel meeting to keep the Salvation Army from closing down the Mission. Said sinners duly turn up and one of them (Daniel T. Parker) bears lively witness to his Pauline religious conversion in the show-stopping number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.”
Somehow, out of all of this, everyone winds up married in the end. Nathan is seen hanging laundry on a suburban clothes line, while Sky appears in Salvation Army uniform banging a big bass drum.
Don’t expect nuanced characters here; these roles are written with shticks, rather than personalities. But the performances are spirited and the action frisky. And what tunes, what lyrics! To think that this was chart-topping jukebox fare for our parents and grandparents! They don’t make them like that anymore.
Much Ado about Nothing – Through Nov. 1, 2015 – Angus Bowmer Theatre.