COURTESY BRAD GODA
Elizabeth Wolfe is Beatrice and Joe Abraham is Benedick in the Bard's "Much Ado About Nothing."
’70s disco hits add to Shakespearean laugh fest
The Hawaii Shakespeare Festival has long since passed "Will it survive?" status to become an annual event the local theater community can look forward to.
'Much Ado About Nothing'
Presented by the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival:
» Place: Ernst Lab Theatre, UH-Manoa.
» On stage: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday
» Tickets: $18; $16 seniors and military; $10 students
» Call: 550-8457 or go online at www.hawaiishakes.org
Not only have founders R. Kevin Doyle, Tony Pisculli and Harry Wong III made a commitment to presenting Shakespeare's less-familiar plays -- going beyond "Romeo & Juliet, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Macbeth" -- but they've also been consistently successful in assembling interesting combinations of actors.
This year's festival opener, "Much Ado About Nothing," lives up to expectations, even though director Doyle has changed the gender of two central characters and created acting opportunities for two female friends who could not have participated otherwise.
The story is relatively simple. Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, agrees to help Claudio win the hand of Hero, the virtuous and virginal daughter of Leonato, governor of Messina. Don Pedro also decides to trick Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, and Hero's cousin, Beatrice, into falling in love with each other. Things get nasty when Don Pedro's illegitimate half-brother, Don John the Bastard, plots to prevent the marriage of Claudio and Hero by "proving" that Hero is neither virtuous nor a virgin.
The show is a welcome return to the local stage for Joe Abraham, who is excellent as Benedick. Abraham is consistently believable, whether he's playing Benedick as an insensitive lout, a buffoon or a man made suddenly awkward by love. He conveys emotion even when wearing a mask, and deploys a firm command of physical comedy.
Abraham is perfectly matched by the Elizabeth Wolfe as Beatrice. Wolfe manages to be downright comical without losing her sex appeal. Doyle may be playing to a classic male fantasy -- the cold but beautiful goddess/woman -- but Wolfe makes Beatrice everything a bachelor could ask for. Better still, Wolfe and Abraham create an aura of sexual tension that keeps the audience's attention.
Shakespeare Festival regular Alvin Chan (Claudio) is impressive once again in capturing different facets of a complex character. Chan's understanding of physical comedy is nicely balanced by his command of the language and his ability to morph from romantic child-man to lethal warrior.
Noelle Poole (Hero) shows her knack for romantic comedy in the scenes where Hero helps trick Beatrice.
Savada Gilmore (Don John) displays his physical prowess by doing push-ups while one of his underlings is talking. Whatever the reasons for Don John's persistent villainy, Gilmore plays the character with expansive depth and feeling.
Three other actors are essential in powering the broader comic action: Shawn A. Thomsen as Don John's bumbling go-fer, Borachio; Jim Hesse as the constable's assistant, Verges; and Stephen Mead as the self-important master constable, Dogberry. Shakespeare was rarely kind to the pretensions of the lower classes, and Mead proves himself a master of Shakespearean mangled syntax, malapropisms and bombast.
The festival's directors have never been shy about experimentation. Doyle adds an anachronistic touch here by using '70s-era disco hits to set the mood. The lyrics of several selections relate to the story, but a scene in which a broken-hearted man reads an epitaph to his lost love and then breaks into a comically bad rendition of "Good Night, Sweetheart," is acceptable only if you've read in Doyle's director's notes that his "main goal when working on a Shakespearean comedy is to make people laugh so hard they urinate."
The audience went wild on Sunday.
I didn't check for puddles under the chairs after the show, but with Abraham, Chan, Hesse, Mead, Thomsen and Wolfe as comic catalysts, it was probably for the best that liquid refreshments were not available at the theater.