Love, actually

What to do with Much Ado, Shakespeare’s suddenly topical examination of the institution of marriage? Director Andy Thornton opts for meta-theatrics: thus the actors don, in full view of the audience, the robes and roles of Beatrice, Benedick, et al. while the production’s exposed costume racks and vanities form an “off-stage” that’s actually onstage. It’s not necessarily an empty conceit — but it’s also incompletely realized: It turns out very little actually happens “off-stage.” (I guess there’s a reason no action films are called Morning Toilette.)

Fortunately, the production more than recovers from its wobbly start, and even concludes as a respectable evening of Elizabethan stagecraft. One awkward consequence of Thornton’s vision is that Rigel Nuñez’s minimalist set focuses nearly all the attention on Shakespeare’s language, but the Classic Theater’s fledgling company has yet to find a uniform approach to precisely that element of performance. The first 45 minutes in particular feature a veritable Babel of Bards, with cast members offering various flavors of pentameter, some with a heapin’ helpin’ of local drawl. But once the production chugs through its expository passages and, at the same time, dispenses with some of the weaker cast members, the plot and the performances find their groove.

And what a dandy plot it is: a double-plot, really, with a nod to Plautus and New Comedy. Don Pedro, a victorious general, returns to Messina, where two of Pedro’s officers, Benedick and Claudio, encounter Beatrice and Hero, daughters of local noblemen. For Claudius and Hero, it’s love at first sight; for Benedick and Beatrice, it’s nausea. While puckish members of the court improvise a drama to dupe B&B into mutual affection, Don Pedro’s brother John — a real bastard, lol — improvises a far more sinister drama, designed to scuttle Hero’s wedding and thereby damage his political enemies. Will the forces of deception and evil prevail?

Almost, but not quite: ’Tis a comedy, after all, and not even one of Willie’s so-called problem plays. As Beatrice and Benedick, Asia and Tony Ciaravino strike plenty of sparks as Shakespeare’s cattiest couple. Tony C. especially commands the stage with his alternately fuming and foolish lovesick pup. John Cheuvront, as Hero’s fiancé, struggles to make an odious character interesting; likewise for Justin Laughlin’s villainous Don John. Rubber-faced Bill Gundry, as the governor of Messina, overplays the character’s vacillating moods into simple goofiness and bluster.

As Don Pedro, native son Adam Guerra is a real find. His skill with Shakespeare’s language is so natural and sensible that he accidentally hijacks the narrative arc of act one. In a play in which everyone seems hell-bent on duplicity, Pedro’s artfully artless request for Beatrice’s hand is squirm-inducing in its honesty. (I kept thinking, why is Beatrice turning him down? He’s such a good actor, meta-theatrically speaking.) Meanwhile, both Gypsy Pantoja and Saska Richards do nifty work as Hero’s mischievous pals.

Sergio Lozano, playing an “off-stage” violin, provides accompaniment for the dance scene as well as a few songs; Lozano also provides (what is intended to be) film-like underscoring for much of the dialogue. Unfortunately, these disjointed riffs and doodles serve only to distract from the music of Shakespeare’s verse; it’s as if Arnold Schoenberg had been set loose on the first act of Much Ado. Sit stage right. The sound balance is all wrong stage left.

When the actors aren’t competing with a fiddle, the Classic’s mammoth cast gamely essays a timely play, and if the results aren’t perfect, they’re still commendable: After all, any Shakespeare in San Antonio is cause for much ado. •

Much Ado About Nothing
Through Aug 29
The Classic Theatre At Sterling Houston Theatre