Austin Shakespeare serves up some of the biggest laughs of the year with “Much Ado”

There are few artists that get as much space on stages in Austin, and around the world, as William Shakespeare, and as such, it can be difficult to determine which of these productions is worth your time. When it comes to Austin Shakespeare productions, it’s an easy choice, however, as they’re sure to bring an knowledgeable and clever take to any adaptation of the bard, and also fill the cast with the some of the most talented folks in the city. They’ve pulled out all the stops with their production of Much Ado About Nothing bringing in recent Austin Chronicle award-winner Marc Pouhe, and the ever-impressive Gwendolyn Kelso, as well as a talented supporting cast, to this Bossa Nova-soaked interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest comedy.

Due warning must be given here, Much Ado About Nothing can be a deceptively complex play. Despite all the lightness and humor that permeates the work, the plot is a tangle of hidden identities, double crosses, and harmful secrets, and if you miss the wrong line of dialog, the entire play could become a confusing mess. As with most Shakespeare, it’s a good idea to come with some idea of the basic plot outline, which will then let you enjoy the performances and the interpretation all the more, however,  between the brisk direction and fine acting on display in this production, you should have very few issues keeping up with the action.

With every performance he gives, Marc Pouhe shows off another dimension to his talent. Building upon the leading man charisma that has made him such a popular figure in the Austin theatre scene, he proves he’s not afraid to make a fool of himself here, as he takes on the sharp, and sharp-tongue Benedick. Whether he’s trading barbs with Gwendolyn Kelso’s Beatrice, or showing off his skills at slapstick, he’s sure to have the audience in the aisles. Throughout the play, he shows that keeping the audience entertained is paramount, and the play is better for it. This is never more evident than in one scene, near the middle of the play, when he pulls off a physical comedy sequence that spans nearly the entirety of the theatre, from the back of the audience to behind the scenery, interacting with audience members along the way, leaving them all crying with laughter by scene’s end. It’s obvious we have somehow still not seen the limits of Pouhe’s talent, and I’m doubtful we ever will.

Pouhe is met in nearly equal measure by the effortlessly charming Gwendolyn Kelso, who spits out biting wit with the best of them as Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s most delightful characters. Much like Benedick, Beatrice is a character who is more than she seems at first blush, using her sarcasm and cynicism as a guard of her inner pain, and the way Kelso is able to communicate this with just a gesture or expression is really quite remarkable. Her affect is so delightful, that during certain sequences I would find myself paying more attention to her facial expressions and reactions than major pieces of action or dialogue going on elsewhere on stage. In other hands it could fall to mugging, but Kelso knows the exact line to ride when it comes to keeping the audience entertained while never feeling disconnected from the action of the play.

Two more kudos must go out to Toby Minor and Susan Myburgh, who play the two bumbling officers who bring the play to its climax. One part Keystone Cops and one part Laurel and Hardy, the two bring some of the biggest laughs in the piece, selling even the corniest of Shakespeare’s jokes. Myburgh is quite a find, showing a real talent for clowning, her bright eyes and a huge smile creating an upbeat atmosphere that’s infectious. One can only hope that she graces more Austin stages in the near future, as even with her small role here, she’s shown a rare talent.  As Dogberry, Minor has weaponized his excellent stage present, grabbing the audience’s attention and holding it fast, as he creates moments of pure pleasure that leave the audience in stitches.

Research from over the last several years has recently shown that Much Ado About Nothing is one of the most performed plays in Austin, so one can be forgiven for being hesitant to pick up a ticket to such a well-worn play, but by bringing in an ace cast, and underscoring the whole thing with the ambiance of the Grand Epoch and the energy of the Bossa Nova, Austin Shakespeare has proven that there’s still a lot of life left in this classic. Director Ann Ciccolella and her crew keep the action light and brisk, helping the audience to navigate through some of the more convoluted, confusing portions of the text, serving up an enticing slice of comedy goodness.

Photos Courtesy of Errich Petersen Photography

Austin Shakespeare presents a raw, emotional ‘Streetcar Named Desire’

There are few more iconic plays in the American canon than “Streetcar Named Desire”. Stanley Kuwolski has become an American icon, and his yelling of “Stella” has become one of the most parodied lines in history. Taking on such a beloved work is always a difficult endeavor, as people come to it with their own preconceptions and expectations, so one must be sure to bring quality to the table. Luckily, Austin Shakespeare has brought a talented group of actors to the piece, who create a raw, emotional production of the Tennessee Williams classic.

Stanley Kuwolski is one of stage’s most notorious brutes, but what often gets overlooked in performing the character is his charm. After all, we have to see what Stella sees in him, and their passion and love for each other must be believable. Andrew Hutcheson brings just that charm to the role, able to fly off the handle with the best of them, while still hitting us with a sly smile or a sarcastic look in his eyes that makes him undeniable likable. Indeed, in the early stages of the play Hutcheson, while never seeming too smart in the role, still imbues it with a canniness that helps us root for him. However, in the later stages of the play, this likability becomes a hindrance, as his violent overtures towards Blanche come off as a bit half-cocked, and the actor doesn’t take his fury quite far enough to make his actions believable. Still, his chemistry with Amber Quick’s Stella is undeniable, and the play never feels in a better place than when we see the two of them together.

Amber Quick tackles the role of Stella with a stunning doe-eyed sweetness, a brightness that brings the audience to beaming, but as we see her tender moments with Hutcheson’s Stanley, we see she’s packing plenty of sensuality. Even in brief conversations with her sister, she brings out a minxy coyness that’s refreshing to see, a strong female character who’s not afraid to express her sexuality.

Though Stanley may be the most well-remembered character by many, “A Streetcar Named Desire” lives and dies on the strength of Blanche Dubois. It’s a part that’s incredibly easy to over play, or underplay, so striking the right balance is tantamount. From the moment Gwendolyn Kelso appears on stage, there’s a twitch to her eyes, an uncertainty in her gait that hides something tumultuous. When the time comes for Blanche Dubois to fly into one of her more dramatic moments, Kelso never plays it over-the-top, but instead stays grounded, even while letting her emotions explode.

Though not without its hiccoughs, Austin Shakespeare’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” feels emotionally honest and palpable, with the main trio digging to the heart of their characters to bring the feelings deep within the piece to the fore. It’s a beautifully realized production, even if its final notes don’t hit quite as hard as they could.

Photo Courtesy of Austin Shakespeare