Third time's the charm, it's said. But who's counting? In the space of six months, Houston's been thrice blessed by Shakespeare's beguiling comedy Much Ado About Nothing.
In July, Houston Shakespeare Festival presented the “merry war” betwixt confirmed bachelor Benedick and acid-tongued Beatrice (earthy and spark-filled Demetria Thomas) and set it in a Gilded Age Texas with parades and Teddy Roosevelt rushing up San Juan Hill. Last December, 4th Wall Theatre Company presented a new-agey, immersive take wherein six actors, who cavorted all around and over us, parlayed all the many characters. Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl nimbly led the sextet as the sniping, in-and-out-of-love couple.
And now we have this most nimble version from Prague Shakespeare Company in association with Main Street Theater, set in, of all places, an underground bunker in London during the Blitz. Adapted by PSC's artistic director Guy Roberts, a thoroughly mesmerizing actor whose yearly performances presented under the aegis of Main Street are always eagerly awaited, Much Ado is absolutely full of charm and is most beguiling.
A diverse assemblage of armed service personnel, Red Cross nurses, a Czech Air Force pilot, and a Hollywood ingenue from MGM perform a live radio broadcast of Shakespeare's play to raise morale for “all the Allied soldiers on the front.” So while Shakespeare is deftly arranged and shortened – no harm here – we get the added pleasure of watching the characters watch each other perform, boosting their own morale, whether off to the side managing the sound effects or joining forces under the hanging microphones for the cigarette commercials. To enhance the mood, period songs and the Czech national anthem are performed. (This being the Prague Shakespeare Company it's no surprise Roberts emphasizes that country's patriotic contribution to the war effort.) There's even an air raid attack during the show: sirens scream, the underground bunker flashes blood red, the men rush out to their stations, dirt falls from the ceiling, the theater shakes under Kris Ayers' cinematic sound design. The men return a bit rattled and it takes a few moments for them to recoup. It's all quite deft and wondrously theatrical.
Shakespeare is not forgotten however, and the combined RSF and Main Street troupes play his shaded comedy with tremendous style.
If you were fortunate to have seen his malevolent Richard III or his fantastically tipsy Sir Toby Belch from former PSC/MST productions, you know Roberts' unfailingly solid grasp on Shakespeare. His adamant bachelor Benedick is awash in sweet macho bluster, yet we're never far from the RAF pilot, Arthur Donahue, he is also supposed to be. In a lighthearted moment right after the intermission during the on-air countdown, he and his Beatrice (Jan Thompson, playing British servicewoman Olivia Morgan) rush in from an obvious amorous intermission of their own. His bravado, tempered by chagrin at being caught, is thoroughly convincing. Thompson, her hair bound in a snood and wearing army mufti, gives prickly Beatrice a high sheen of intelligent allure, holding her own against macho Benedick and giving as good, if not better, than she gets. In their hands, the war between the sexes is fun to wage. It's certainly fun to watch.
These two are ably abetted by Mark Roberts as both malaprop-dropping comic constable Dogberry and then, in full Erich von Stroheim evil-Nazi accent, as villain Don John; Jovan Jackson as imperious Don Pedro and Igor-esque Borachio; Jessica Boone as faithful Hero; Abigail Rice as Friar Francis; Karel Hemánek as ardent Claudio; Bob Boudreaux as radio host; Julie Josephson as no-nonsense Leonato.
The walls of Main Street's theater are plastered with period WW II ads and promotions, and stiff upper lips are much in evidence in the bunker. “Stop his mouth with a kiss,” playfully commands Beatrice to cousin Hero when betrothed Claudio is in the throes of over-ripe passion. Shakespeare was in playful mode when he wrote Much Ado About Nothing. This production from Prague Shakespeare Company presented at Main Street Theater catches that ethereal blithe spirit and throws us a kiss.
Much Ado About Nothing continues through January 15 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times. For information call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$45.