At the end of Shakespeare’s classic rom-com, Much Ado About Nothing, the reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick are united.
A happily ever after if there ever was one — and if you don’t mind the the assertively intelligent pair’s constant squabbling.
They also help to repair the badly torn trust between Hero and Claudio, creating the double wedding with which love comedies love to end. But what of the wicked Don John, illegitimate brother of the Prince, whose merciless plotting nearly cost loves and lives?
In 2004, novice playwright Joan Silsby pursued that question with The Devil’s Bride. Her witty notion is that Benedick persuades the Prince to treat his brother with the same medicine that has healed everyone else — marriage. In this case, to Benedick’s sister, Allegra.
Of course, there’s a catch. Allegra, thank to a gypsy witch’s curse, has had three fiancés die before wedding her. Not that she — or anyone else — would mind Don John suffering that fate.
But then there’s another catch. Love. Yes, Allegra sees through John’s angry mien, and he sees her inestimable worth, and they’re both caught — she not wishing to kill him by consenting, he unable (or at least unwilling) to live if she does not.
Thereby hangs a very merry tale, with some fine performances by several Theatre Unleashed tried-and-troupers and one sterling newcomer. In this irreverent sequel, author Silsby playfully mixes the social, sexual and linguistic sensibilities of Shakespeare’s era and our own. Purists may wrinkle a nose or two, but it’s part of the fun intended.
The bride atop this wedding cake is Sammi Lappin, whose subtle and marvelously still Allegra becomes the play’s center and anchor the moment she steps onstage. Clad in black (a splendid, flexible costume by Lauren Billingsley Florence) and headed for a nunnery, she nonetheless radiates irresistible charm and reined-in sensuality. Lappin also gets to utter the lioness’ share of Silsby’s best dialog.
Matching her in intensity and clarity is Michael Cortez as Don John, the only person onstage who can stand toe-to-toe with Lappin. As he grudgingly reveals the convoluted layers beneath John’s angry-bastard persona, Cortez marks our way; and we trust him because we, too, know Allegra is worth any sacrifice.
As the garrulous, meddling Benedick, Jim Martyka creates a self-admiring yet self-mocking fellow who really is smarter than almost anyone else. Almost — but Jenn Scuderi Crafts gives us a tolerant, amused Beatrice who can pull his leash when needed.
Richard Abraham and Cyanne McClairian do sweet clowning as the malapropping Dogberry and his fawning lieutenant. Molly Moran’s Marisol is by turns flirtatious and fearsome; and Isabelle Gronlund lights up the space as Margaret, Beatrice’s maid, who can’t stop loving that bad, bad man of hers.
Ann Hurd and her paint crew must be noted for transforming a black box into Renaissance Messina. And topping off the treats, director Wendy Gough Soroka (and an uncredited musical director) drop polyphonal sweetmeats into a few scene changes — and the (yes!) ghost sequences. The joyful aftertaste of The Devil’s Bride will linger for a long time.
It will be a good thing for Silsby to keep on writing plays. And a very good thing for Theatre Unleashed to keep on finding and performing them.
The Devil’s Bride, by Jean Silsby, directed by Wendy Gough Soroka.
Presented by Theatre Unleashed, at the Belfry Stage, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood 91602.
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00,
Mondays (except May 16) at 8:00,through May 21.