In an effort to bring Shakespeare to the masses, theater companies sometimes feel compelled to adapt the Bard to modern times, using familiar settings to ease the language complexity. This motive, perhaps, inspired New Theatre to put a contemporary spin on its latest South Florida Shakespeare Festival, featuring Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter's Tale, performed in a rotating repertory schedule. Both shows take place in the here and now. Much Ado About Nothing even has some Miami flavor. Too bad the present-day settings don't do much for the shows, which have bigger problems.
The two scripts could not be more different. Much Ado follows two couples as they find romance: Hero (Cecilia Torres) and Claudio (Euriamis Losada) are young, in love, and too cute for words, while Benedick (Peter Tedeschi) and Beatrice (Bridget Connors) delight in hurling insults at each other in antagonistic foreplay. It's an Elizabethan-era sitcom, with one-liners and lots of talk about sex. On the flip side, The Winter's Tale delves into the mind of Leontes (Robert Strain), a paranoid king who erroneously concludes that his wife, Queen Hermione (Annemaria Rajala), is having an affair with one of his buddies. As is always the case with these stories, Leontes begins throwing everyone in prison or having them killed, only to regret it later. All of this action is performed by one group of actors, each playing a role in both shows.
If the two productions seem oddly similar, it's not because the scripts have anything in common; it's that the performances are equally flat. Each actor seems to have only one "Shakespeare" character in his or her bag of acting tricks. Each word they say, every facial expression it's all the same. You can't help but wonder if they learned their Shakespeare while performing in the local Renaissance festival. (Although that's not entirely fair; the Renaissance festival can be fun if you're drunk.)
Shakespeare wrote these plays with multitudes of meaty monologues, chances for the actors to own the stage and knock the audience dead. Much Ado About Nothing is hilarious, sarcastic, and aggressively clever, a diatribe of one-ups and cut-downs; The Winter's Tale is a rolling battle of love and betrayal, with characters reaching down each other's throats and pulling out handfuls of guts. It's good stuff. Yet New Theatre's productions pack all the passion of an insurance seminar. The actors seem confused by Shakespeare's language, reciting lines as if they have no idea what the hell they are talking about. Conversations are little more than actors standing onstage, waiting for their cues.
The Winter's Tale is saved by two refreshingly solid performances that seem out of place in the otherwise dismal production. Bridget Connors plays Paulina, a friend of the queen who stands up to the tyrannical Leontes while everyone else tries to hide. Connors delivers a rich portrayal filled with rage. It's a smaller role than her lead performance in Much Ado About Nothing, but she steals her scenes, acting circles around her castmates, and virtually blasts Leontes off the stage with her tightly packed monologues. If you're out-acting the king, that's a pretty good sign the show is in trouble.
James Samuel Randolph appears in the second act as a trickster vagabond, in a role that provides some laughs but does little to propel the actual story. That is unfortunate; his moments on the stage are charming, fun, and interesting. Both Randolph and Connors are underused in the show, especially since both actors seem to be the only ones onstage who understand the words coming out of their own mouths.
Connors and Randolph also give good performances in Much Ado About Nothing but fall prey to an otherwise disjointed, mushy production with virtually no sense of purpose. The only real laugh comes at the end, when the cast dances into the center aisle, through the audience, in a conga line. And that's not so much an intentional laugh as it is a laugh at the show.
New Theatre has won rave reviews for previous productions, and it is clear this company is an adept bunch. But the festival comes off as little more than a community theater production of a show too big for the company to handle.
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