One of things I miss most about living in the NY/NJ area is the opportunity to attend performances of classical music and plays both in the grand, elaborate venues, as well as the smaller, more intimate or experimental stages. Some of my favorite memories from when I was younger are of waiting in line in Central Park for tickets to see the Shakespeare plays. Something about seeing Othello live, instead of simply reading it, or watching some filmed stage play, made the play finally come alive and helped one understand why his plays remain so popular.
I had never heard of this group or their performances until I received an email newsletter from the Museum of the Cape Fear Historical Complex informing me that they would be playing in the backyard of the 1897 Poe House. (Not that of the writer Edgar Allen, although a businessman of the same name resided there. Everyone makes that mistake.) Grabbing up my folding chair and my NY Giants fleece blanket (it’s been uncommonly chilly here at night), I headed down to get my seat.
Walking in, I had the distinct feeling that everyone there knew everyone else, a feeling that was reinforced by the fact that it appeared everyone DID know everyone—audience, performers, crew. I took advantage of the sandwiches the cast sold, poured some free water (sweet tea was also available) and turned down the offer to buy a T-shirt (they really wanted to sell me a T-shirt, but I have so many…) I sat down and prepared to be entertained.
The audience slowly gathered. Cast members Johnson Taylor (Claudio/Watchman), Tyler Pow (Benedick) and Jessica Osnoe (Borachio/Antonia) serenaded those gathered as The Suspenders, the “resident band of Sweet Tea Shakespeare,” as the sun set over the roses behind the Poe House. The ambience was, in a word, cozy. The set was simple—a small backdrop, some strings of white lights, footlights and candles—with the rest of the stage provided by the grassy lawn and towering trees of the Poe House. The traffic rumbling by on Rte 87 sometimes provided a challenge to the sound system, but it shortly faded into the background.
Having been a long-time devotee of the 1993 Branagh interpretation of Much Ado, I was wondering if my memory of the film would be an impediment to enjoying a live performance. Happy to say, the performances by most members of the company were strong enough to overcome any lasting memory, at least for the night. The troupe played the humor broadly, the stage direction making the most of the minimal set dressing. (Every once in a while, the slapstick overpowered the subtlety of the Bard’s language, which sometimes found the cast stumbling over a line, but this didn’t happen often enough to take away the enjoyment of the show.) The cast possessed an excellent sense of timing, which highlighted the humor throughout the play and reminds one why this has been one of the most enduringly popular Shakespeare plays.
One aspect that almost worked—but ultimately didn’t—for me was the director’s decision to set the play post-WWII, to highlight the fact that the men were returning from long years at war. This concept seemed interesting, but was mostly limited to the costuming. The director did not take any liberties with the script, and the music maintained its modern flavor. Thus, the “nobles” were still referred to as such, which was jarring when they entered the stage for the first time and I realized that Don Pedro, Count Claudio, and Benedick were all wearing private rank. One would expect them to at least be commissioned officers, which would then explain why they wore dress swords in the later scenes. But, kudos to the company for pointing out the often overlooked martial aspects of the play.
The chemistry between the cast kept the audience involved, laughing at the humor, and falling serious when the play called for it. Greg Griffin as Margaret/Dogberry was fabulously hilarious, doing justice to one of (in my opinion) Shakespeare’s most comedic roles. Ja’Maul Johnson played Don Pedro as if he were born for the role. Johnson Taylor (Claudio) and Sara Beth Short (Hero) brought life to one of my least favorite literary couples (aside from Romeo and Juliet—seriously? You couldn’t write a letter or something??). They were the picture of impetuous, naive love that meets its first test and finds one of them unworthy.
And then for one of my favorite literary couples—Beatrice and Benedick (Staci Graybill and Tyler Pow). I have always enjoyed the banter between these two—the witty repartee, the mature intellect, the love that can be tricked into being acknowledged because it’s always been there. However, there are a few times in the play when the characters acknowledge that their wit has gotten the best of them, and they’ve come close to losing (or have lost) what could have been theirs for lack of speaking what they were thinking at the moment, or having to show who is the superior intellect. (I can sympathize with that whole talk yourself into trouble schtick). Here, the actors captured every bit of that subtlety without losing the broader comedic arc.
Mr. Pow is a natural comic, and believable as “the Prince’s jester.” So believable, in fact, that it lent extra impact to the scene where he confronts Claudio and Don Pedro. They can’t believe their class clown of a friend is actually being serious, and it adds even more awkwardness when they realize he isn’t kidding around.
Finally, the play came to an end. All the cases of mistaken identity were ironed out, the villain was apprehended, and Dogberry was an ass. No funerals, two weddings, and some singing and dancing. What more could you ask for?
The play runs for two more nights at the Poe House. Tickets can be purchased at the gate, or online. I fully intend to be back this summer for Love’s Labour Lost (June 18-22) and The Taming of the Shrew (July 16-20). Hope to see you there!