The boys are back from the wars in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” but they’re being played by women in the Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s amusing but unbalanced all-female production.
The Riot Grrrls — the arm of the Taffety Punks that annually unleashes a cast of women on Shakespeare — aren’t out to blur gender within the story. They just want to play both roles. And in the small Southern barroom setting devised by director Eleanor Holdridge and designer Jessica Moretti, they largely succeed. The “guys” are the ones with their hair slicked back and pulled into tight ponytails, while the gals wear sundresses and get to let their tresses down.
“Much Ado” is the comedy featuring the sparring lovebirds Beatrice and Benedick, who swear till they’re blue in the face how annoyed they are with one another. (It’s the mark of true love.) Tonya Beckman Ross is a natural-born Beatrice, merrily tossing off sarcastic barbs and glowing with good spirits, even as she displays a touch of steel in her spine.
Kimberly Gilbert’s Benedick, though, is something new. Gilbert slows the pace of Benedick’s banter, ambling through the soliloquies and repartee. Each of Benedick’s bright revelations seems to take him by surprise; Gilbert’s eyes grow wide and the lines come out sounding like the Shakespearean equivalent of “Golly!” It’s very funny.
It’s also a consequence of situating this “Much Ado” below the Mason-Dixon line at a “Welcome Home, Troops” moment. Sarah Kendrick’s costumes feature camouflage uniforms for the soldiers, and two American flags are draped amid the beer signs and hubcaps on the walls of the intimate Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. The posters inform us that we’re in Patsy Cline-Johnny Cash country, and Kathy Cashel sings ballads and strums banjo and guitar between scenes.
So there’s a lot of drawlin’ goin’ on, with the least of it coming from Ross and Gilbert.
Yet Holdridge doesn’t seem to want to lampoon either men or the South, so a lot of the show is performed in a low-key twang (with the exception being Kimberly Schraf’s turn as the malaprop-spouting constable Dogberry, where the accent is in overdrive). The performers soft-pedal the characters, but the underplaying hurts the high melodrama of the plot, which eventually has to do with sabotaging the wedding between Claudio (Esther Williamson) and Hero (Betsy Rosen) by framing sweet Hero as a tramp.
Don John, the chief saboteur, is a confessed villain, but the sneakiness that Tiernan Madorno aims for can come off as sleepiness. And while Jessica Lefkow’s amiability as Leonato (Hero’s father) is appealing, she lacks the hot fury to drive the crisis when Leonato curses his daughter at the altar.
So the production boils down, as “Much Ado” often does, to the snappiness of Beatrice and Benedick. Ross is wonderfully breezy, and when Gilbert sees that Benedick has some growing to do, she straightens him up smartly. They are the muscle in this Riot Grrrls exercise.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Lighting, Kristin A. Thompson. With Leigh Jameson, Katie Molinaro, Victoria Reinsel and Amal Saade. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Sept. 24 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.taffetypunk.com.