The weather outside has been frightful, and theater lovers, tired of digitalized actors, are seeking real, flesh-and-blood ones. Any port in a storm, so Oklahoma City Theatre Company brings us a modest staging of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Director Paul Huebner sets the play in the present, showing it can be staged as a contemporary comedy. Such an ambitious approach, however, requires much attention to detail and calls for a director to place his strong, personal stamp on a production, even bringing some of his own humor to it, if necessary.
The best directors of Shakespeare in contemporary settings succeed by assuring that everyone involved — actors, designers, producers — understand and buy into the idea. Directors get into trouble when these productions lack consistency, and Huebner’s “Much Ado” has some lapses.
For example, most of the time, Huebner has the actors perform in a modern, naturalistic style with no overemoting or outlandish expression, except in a couple of places where it’s needed for effect. But at other times, he has them anachronistically bowing, curtsying and dropping to one knee to beg forgiveness. When was the last time someone dropped to a knee and begged your forgiveness? Or bowed grandly to you from the waist? Or curtsied to you, excepting people who frequent debutante balls?
Huebner has done some odd, inexplicable casting. Jerrad Allbritton plays both constables, Dogberry and Verges, but one sort of sees how that might have worked. Odder still is the genderblind casting of women as Antonio (Davene Teeter) and prince Don Pedro (Trinity Goodwin). In a pin-striped suit and knee-high leather boots, this weirdly androgynous Don Pedro comes across as halfway through a sex-change procedure, but you can’t tell if it will result in a prince or a princess.
The production has a mostly young, but not inexperienced cast, although most of them seemingly lack Shakespearean experience. The actors often appear left at sea with the dialogue. A quick pace is desirable, but so is clarity. The director must help actors achieve the proper balance. But give Huebner credit for bringing in the show at two hours, including intermission and four or five superfluous dance scenes.
Rachel McRae Bouton as Beatrice looks and acts the part, and her solid performance shows what Huebner has in mind with his concept for the play. Johnnie Payne plays her initially reluctant lover, Benedick. The other on-again, off-again couple is played by Calen Cabler (Hero) and Marty Rogers (Claudio). Brenda Nelson’s color-coded costumes help us remember who goes with whom.
David Pasto is fine as Leonato, but don’t be alarmed when you hear him reading from “A Tale of Two Cities” at the beginning. This is another device Huebner uses to show that the play is set in the present, or in no particular time. Leavell Javon Johnson, who is new to me, is effective as Borachio. He’s a fine actor of whose work it would be nice to see more.