"He were an excellent man that were made just in the mid-way between him and Benedick," says Beatrice of the evil Don John in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," playing through Sunday at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Kennedy Theatre. Similarly, he were an excellent Benedick that were made just in the mid-way between Matthew Malliski (the actor playing Benedick in the present production) and Jeremy Pippin (Don John). For while Malliski perfectly captures the "noble strain ... approved valor and confirmed honesty," he's less successful at the bawdy misogyny that the role of Benedick also demands, a kind of delight in wickedness that seems to come naturally to Pippin.
Better by half
By Scott Vogel
Jennifer Robineau, in the wonderfully written part of Beatrice, is similarly smashing in one-half her role, specifically that which has earned Beatrice the appellation "Lady Disdain." Never did insults trip off a woman's tongue with such ease, and Robineau's pleasure in these eloquent put-downs is a joy to watch.
She's so good at ridicule that the transition to gushing romantic required by the play's second half -- so crucial to "Much Ado's" complex appeal -- finally escapes the actress.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that there isn't much fiery chemistry between this Beatrice and Benedick who, all the sarcastic jibes to the contrary, really ought to be two of a kind.
In part, the actors can be forgiven such peccadilloes. Long considered a difficult play to stage, "Much Ado" suffers from a split personality of sorts. On the one hand you have the ribald wit of both the leads and Dogberry (the town constable, here played by Thomas Isao Morinaka). On the other, there's this backlit romantic melodrama complete with a double wedding at play's end.
Staging "Much Ado," then, presents a challenge, and more often than not, director Terence Knapp and his design team have met this challenge. Joseph Dodd's set, in particular, is a wonderful solution to the problem of integrating the script's elements. A simple round playing area surrounded by diaphanous curtains that extend from the ceiling to the stage, the set looks alternately like a giant marriage veil and an exploding circus tent. Elegantly lit by Kelly Berry, this is a Messina that positively sings of love and mischief.
Speaking of music, Blake Kushi's ever-present accordion rendition of "Funiculi, Funicula" has the happy effect of adding an Italian folksiness to the proceedings. However, playing the first few bars of the "Godfather" theme whenever the villainous Don John enters is a bit too much and ought to be discarded. (At such moments the show has all the subtlety of a popcorn melodrama.)
When: 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow; 2 p.m. Sunday
'Much Ado About Nothing'
Where: Kennedy Theater, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
Cost: $12; $9 seniors, military, UH staff; $7 non-UH students; $4 UH students with fall ID
Ironically, the present "Much Ado" is blessed with a Don John to whom evil seems to come naturally, no musical accompaniment necessary. Whether concocting ruses to foil the principals -- his eyes darting in all directions -- or cavorting with his henchmen, Pippin employs every inch of his small, wiry frame in service of the diabolical. It's a terrific performance, a reminder of how charismatic miscreants can be.
Charisma doesn't come easily to the colorless lovers at the play's center, Hero and Claudio, and it's no fault of Sadie Yi and Scot Davis that their story pales by comparison to the wicked bitch-fest surrounding them. Nevertheless, they acquit themselves well. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Ross Armetta, whose Don Pedro is given to a declamatory style more suited to an evening of rhetoric than theater.
I confess I don't quite know what to think of Morinaka's Dogberry, the actor having decided to speak his lines with a heavy pidgin inflection. This choice threatens to bring down the house in spots, especially during the Laurel-and-Hardy-type run-ins with his deputy (Blake Kushi again). In a way, the use of pidgin is a daring choice that works on the whole. There are times when one wished Morinaka had trusted the Bard's comic lines -- which are, after all, hilarious on their own -- rather than hijacking them with a foreign cadence.
All in all, it's an evening dominated by half-steps, some successful, others less so.
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