Everyone has a favorite screwball comedy — for some there’s It Happened One Night, and for others the prize goes to Bringing Up Baby or The Philadelphia Story. What these Hollywood classics all have in common is their roots in Shakespeare’s incredibly influential Much Ado About Nothing, which received an expert production at the Westmont’s Porter Theatre this weekend under the direction of Mitchell Thomas. These films and this play rely on the organizing principle of the “merry war,” an ongoing pattern of flirtation disguised as insults and witticisms that passes between the male and the female protagonist. As in life, the expression of a contrary opinion or even a negative judgment in these comedies often simply means a willingness to engage, and Beatrice (Paige Tautz) and Benedick (Mak Manson) are the prototypical warring lovers, the precursors of modern sitcom couples with endlessly unresolved sexual tensions.
This production was particularly distinguished not only due to the expert acting and direction but also because of the contributions of an illustrious group of Westmont alumni who came together to create the look and feel of the show. Costume designer Lynne Martens, lighting designer Jonathan Hicks, production manager Cameron Squire, dramaturge Elizabeth Hess, composer Gregory Wadsworth, choreographer Leah Benson, and art designer Ben Johnson all took their undergraduate degrees from Westmont, and they have all, either through graduate school, professional experience, or both, continued to work in the theater since leaving the program. This richly detailed production showcases their talent as much as it does that of the mostly undergraduate cast.
The real challenge of this play, both the most archetypal and the most idiosyncratic of Shakespeare’s “festive comedies,” is how to keep the pathos from overwhelming the slapstick. As Benedick, Manson did an excellent job keeping both sides of his character in play, and as Beatrice, Tautz was fully convincing and emotionally connected. The real craziness, as those familiar with the script will know, comes when Claudio (Connor Bush) and Don Pedro (Sam Martin) are led to question the honor of Claudio’s prospective bride, Hero (Kendall Shurance). Shurance is a wonderfully effective stage presence in the role, and offsets the tart replies of Beatrice with her girlish eagerness to wed. As the darkly shadowed love interest Claudio, Bush generates heat and fear, a useful combination for this deeply ambivalent character.
The whole thing sparkles with the adventurousness and high spirits of Westmont’s outstanding theater program. Between UCSB and Westmont College, Santa Barbara must count as one of the top places in the world for aspiring Shakespeareans to matriculate. Other notable performances in this thoroughly satisfying production include Westmont professor of English Randy VanderMey as Leonato, Jackie Dressler as Margaret, and Benjamin David Offringa as the devious bastard Don John.