Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s three-play festival opens with innovative casting twists
The spectacle of Shakespeare’s most tartly devised couple reluctantly falling in love has charmed audiences for five centuries. And, with provocative casting of central characters, the new Santa Cruz Shakespeare production of Much Ado About Nothing offers its own summer festival charm.
Shakespeare wrote this play at the very epicenter of his inventive prime, borrowing from an Italian tragedy about young lovers who mistakenly stumble into near-fatal deception. Onto the romantic motif of love and broken vows between the governor of Messina’s beautiful daughter Hero (Sarah Traisman) and dashing soldier Claudio (Josh Saleh), Shakespeare grafts his own brilliant invention—man-eating Beatrice (played to the hilt by Greta Wohlrabe), and the man she loves to insult, confirmed bachelor Benedick (Mike Ryan). In other words, two well-matched wits determined not to fall in love.
The juicy repartee between Beatrice and Benedick drives the energy of this production, the opening play of Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s second year. Without grandstanding, Wohlrabe, (Celia in last year’s As You Like It) owns every moment that she’s on stage. She can swagger, cajole, and take great bites out of the chewy text with nimble delivery and effortless bravura. The accomplished Ryan, who is also the company’s artistic director, is an adroit comic actor with flawless physical intuitions. “Ah, what a giddy thing is a man,” he confesses, to our delight. They are the power couple to watch as they weave their mutual discoveries and outrage in and out of the action, helping to pump confidence and expert timing into the evening.
Much Ado About Nothing, which played to an appreciative opening-night audience, gave us a chance to consider a few of the innovations Ryan has brought to this season. The repertory concept of the three-play festival run allows one company of actors to explore multiple roles. For example Dogberry, Much Ado’s linguistically challenged idiot constable, is played by Steve Pickering—the same actor who will play Macbeth later in the season. Playing the First Witch in Macbeth will be seasoned actor Patty Gallagher, who is Leonata in Much Ado About Nothing. And, here comes the most intriguing casting move of the season: Intent upon bringing more female voices to theater, Ryan has encouraged gender parity in casting. This does not mean cross-dressing, where women dress as male characters. No, this is more subtle—it means that male characters are now set as female ones. Banquo, in next month’s production of Macbeth for example, will be played as a woman, and acted by the powerful Wohlrabe. Gallagher’s character in Much Ado is Leonata, the Governor of Messina. But in Shakespeare’s play, the governor is Leonato—a man. And furthermore, Leonato’s brother Antonio is here transformed into a woman, Antonia (valiantly played by Suzanne Sturn). Such casting changes can force the iconic text into new potency, and, ideally, new insights. Having two strong women stand up to male cheats can resonate in a 21st century where women hold presidential power. However, some of the younger members of last week’s audience opted to laugh loudly and nervously at the sight of mature women threatening to match swords with young men. Changing the gender of a well-known character could invite confusion—and perhaps laughter from the clueless. It’s a bold move to be sure. Learning to re-read the text might take some time, but it will also reward a second viewing.
The performance innovations of this season can only unfold for those who have seen all the productions. Much Ado About Nothing sets the stage for the repertory inventions of The Liar and Macbeth.
Come and feast on the English language the way it was meant to be heard, spoken and savored. And then some.
INFO: ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ runs through Aug. 30. ‘The Liar’ runs July 21- Aug. 29. ‘Macbeth’ runs Aug. 4-Aug. 30. Visit santacruzshakespeare.org for tickets and details. PHOTO: Mike Ryan and Greta Wohlrabe lead the cast of ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ which runs through Aug. 30 in the Glen. SANTA CRUZ SHAKESPEARE