Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday Afternoon in Central Park: Boomerang Theatre Company presents "Much Ado About Nothing"

This afternoon from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. we were thoroughly delighted to be in the audience at the Boomerang Theatre Company's vibrant, sprightly and comical production of Much Ado About Nothing.

The Boomerang Theatre Company is an award-winning Off-Off-Broadway theater company here in New York, annually producing a season composed of three programs: these free outdoor Shakespeare productions; an indoor repertory series of new, classic and neglected plays; and First Flight, a new play development series of workshops and readings.

They've been doing these Central Park Shakespeare productions since 1999 and we're grateful we got to see this season's Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Daniel Talbott, and taking place north of the West 69th Street entrance, west of the bocce and croquet courts across West Drive, and south of Strawberry Fields.

There's the usual ambient noise inevitable at outdoor productions, but the actors' voices were strong enough so that, at least for us, in the front row on a mostly dirt (and dusty) stretch, we rarely found them drowned out.

And they use the physical set -- a rock promontory, a cluster of trees -- to good effect. The play took exactly two hours, without an intermission, and it moved fast, as a good production of Much Ado should.

Last summer we saw two outdoor productions of this play, one of our favorites, at Battery Park and McCarren Park. The Boomerang production today was memorable for its strong acting and interesting interpretations of both plot and character.

Much Ado, unlike other of our favorite comedies, relies neither on magic and sorcery nor mistaken identities and gender disguise, to propel its plot and its humor. It's somewhat earthbound, which is sort of nice, in that its machinations and characterizations stem more from very human emotions -- many of them fairly unpleasant.

The actors worked wonderfully together and the action moved seamlessly. As we said, some of the interpretations of their roles were fascinating. Every Leonato we've seen has been played with the stolid authority of the pater familias, but Ralph Petrarca makes the character refreshingly insecure despite all his power; in one scene, he childishly avoids hearing unpleasant information by plugging his ears and saying "na-na-na" to drown out the other character. Claudio's transformation from nice-guy-in-love to vengeful is for us the most problematic part of Much Ado, but Brad Lewandowski emphasizes Claudio's boyishness and thus his turn-on-a-dime transformation is portrayed as a product of his immaturity.

Indeed, adult childishness was one of the themes of this show. Sara Thigpen gives a strong, dynamic performance as the take-charge, sarcastic Beatrice; she has moments when she loses it, too, of course, but none of the men, including her sparring-partner-cum-lover Benedick, are really a match for her. The most interesting performance to us was Erik Sherr's as Antonio, Leonato's brother, sometimes eliminated from productions of this play and often portrayed as a doddering old fool and object of comedy. Here Antonio is dapper, dashing, and passionate; the scene where he goes after Benedick for the latter's treatment of his niece Hero, often played for laughs at the expense of a pathetic old man, Sherr gave this such a fiery, heartful reading that we were moved to tears.

Nate Miller made for an affable Benedick; the actor is equally adept at physical comedy and portraying a sympathetic character self-aware enough to see his own limitations as well as those of others. We've never seen a Beatrice-Benedick pairing (not Sam Waterston/Kathleen Widdoes nor Derek Jacobi/Sinead Cusack) that suggested hot sexual passion, and the same was true of the chemistry between Boomerang's Beatrice and Benedick; but their verbal jousting and body language makes it clear from the first that these two are made for each other.

Colby Chambers as Dogberry and Edward Carnevale as Verges provided a lot of laughs during their rollicking scenes, and we were also impressed with other actors. Hero can be a drip sometimes, but Laura Ramadei made the ingenue bride winningly girlish and enthusiastic without being icky. Sid Solomon portrayed Don Pedro with the customary grace and humor but also gave off an aura of sadness, and John C. Egan in his Saddam Hussein mustache nicely underplayed the petulant villainy of Don John.

A standout in the play was Sevrin Anne Mason, who played multiple roles, including the Friar, with thoughtful energy and variety. But the entire cast did a really good job, and the audience was kept entertained this afternoon. It's always fun to see people strolling or biking by and then stopping to watch, getting caught in the fast-paced action so much that they stay till the play's end.

This production of Much Ado About Nothing had other virtues, including some lively dancing, a couple of cute songs, and a whole lot of energy. It will be at Central Park again next Saturday and Sunday afternoons. We're glad to have finally caught the Boomerang Theatre Company.

Next time, though, we will bring a blanket or at least a towel to sit on, the way most members of the audience, a really nice and appreciative crowd, were smart enough to do. At least they ended up looking as if they'd been watching Shakespeare while we looked as if we'd been playing football. Man may be a giddy thing, but he shouldn't have to get this dirty.

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