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Theater Review - Leading man

Chris Kayser's roles anchor Much Ado and School for Wives

Atlanta actor Chris Kayser is the face of the Georgia Shakepeare Festival, in at least one respect. The festival banners that hang along Peachtree Street display Kayser's shaggy image as foppish Sir Andrew Aguecheek from the 2000 production of Twelfth Night.

Every year the Festival showcases the versatility of its ensemble, and Kayser is one of its iron men, often playing multiple meaty roles in a repertory season. Summer of 2000 also saw him take on the title parts of Richard II and Tartuffe. He performs a similar juggling act this year as the leads in Much Ado About Nothing and Moliere's School for Wives, plus the smaller part of Belarius in the upcoming Cymbeline.

It's fascinating not just to watch Kayser carry his loads so gracefully, but to see how he plays off himself with thematically opposite roles. Wives' Arnolphe looks like a photographic negative of Much Ado's Benedick, and Kayser's two performances shed light on each play.

His Much Ado character desires to remain single, but we know Benedick will change his tune because he's so clearly well suited to Beatrice (the equally sharp Carolyn Cook). Their "merry war" of constant insults scarcely disguises their attraction, although neither of them knows it yet.

In School for Wives, Arnolphe's only ambition is to marry happily, but he's so terrified of being cuckolded that he goes to insane lengths. Believing that an ignorant, sheltered wife is less likely to stray, he arranged for his ward, Agnes (Karan Kendrick), to be raised in a convent since she was 4. Now that she's grown up, he plans to marry her.

Kayser gives each role similar body language despite their diametric differences. The actor frequently brings a kind of swinger's swagger to his comic roles. At one point Benedick crows, "I! will live! a bachelor!" and struts downstage. Kayser carries the cockiness even further with Arnolphe, a character who's typically portrayed as a puritanical chauvinist. Kayser makes him a preening peacock who leers behind sunglasses, a purple bowler and a floor-length fur coat.

When the tables get turned for both Benedick and Arnolphe, Kayser's gift for physical comedy provides the punchlines. Benedick becomes smitten after his buddies arrange for him to overhear Beatrice admit that she secretly loves him.. When Beatrice unwittingly greets him afterward, Kayser's hyper-verbal swain becomes the picture of love-struck idiocy, gaping at her with slack jaw and arms akimbo.

He's even more ingenious when Arnolphe discovers that young friend Horace (the hilariously outgoing Daniel May) has wooed the not-so-innocent Agnes. On hearing the revelation, Kayser slowly bends his knees under the long coat, so it looks like Arnolphe is sinking into the stage.

Kayser's performances prove crucial to sell the concept of each show's director. Kenny Leon, in his first time directing Shakespeare, offers a rudimentary staging that makes most of the cast passive spectators to Kayser and Cook's banter. Leon takes Much Ado so seriously that a heaviness encumbers the comedy. But the payoff comes in the second act when Beatrice suggests Benedick prove his love for her by killing his friend Claudio, who's wronged Beatrice's cousin. Because Kayser establishes Benedick's friendship for Claudio with quiet looks of affection, his interpretation hints that the play could go in a tragic direction worthy of Romeo and Juliet, with Benedick torn between his friend and his lover.

Wives' director Karen Robinson brings a vaudeville concept full of stylized movement and exaggerated physical comedy to Ranjit Bolt's rhyming translation of the play. At first the shtick feels sterile, but Kayser's chummy interplay with the audience warms up the atmosphere. When the audience claps at one of May's prancing exits, Kayser crankily ad-libs, "Don't applaud him!" He's similarly responsive when the audience hisses at Arnolphe's sexist remarks, or when he encourages the crowd to show sympathy for his misfortunes.

Arnolphe would benefit from Much Ado's example. Once they put aside their bickering, Benedick and Beatrice prove a perfect couple, knowing each other's faults and virtues backward and forward. But Arnolphe never really gets to know Agnes. School for Wives offers lessons in how not to find a mate, while Much Ado teaches how to recognize true love. Kayser plays the dunce in one and the star pupil in the other, but gets straight A's in both.