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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Much Ado About Nothing
Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, (David Bishins) arrives in Messina, Sicily, and is welcomed by Leonato, the governor (Philip Kerr,) his innocently lovely daughter Hero (Christina Pumariega,) and his niece, the smart and very outspoken Beatrice (Gretchen Egolf). Of course, the Prince is accompanied by his Lords, Claudio (Babak Tafti) and Benedick (Christopher Innvar,) and passion is set into motion.
The witty Beatrice and dashing Benedick are unlike all of Shakespeare's couples; they are intelligent equals who deny their love and admiration for each other until the moment before their nuptials. Everyone but they recognize the powerful attraction that palpitates onstage. The chemistry between the two actors accentuates the verbal duels between Egolf's tall, elegant Beatrice and Innvar's swaggering, insouciant Benedick.
Their story played out amidst a Sicilian tale of justice, disgrace and retaliation, involves the pretty, obedient Hero and the gullible and almost brutish Claudio. The comparison of the two sets of lovers is quite stark in both execution and style.
The play itself is termed a comedy and most often amusing, though predicated on war and deceit on all levels. The plotting and counter-plotting showcases Shakespeare's ability to master duality and paradox which places Much Ado high above a slight romantic comedy of misinformation and confusion. The audience is asked to examine the importance of trust and emphasis on chastity in the face of life-and- death situations.
The comedy stems from the plotting courtiers who decide to bring the two sparrers to heel by creating a web of overheard stories whereby Beatrice and Benedick will be tricked out of their self-imposed prison of pride and one- upsmanship. Classy and clever slapstick serves to further the hilarity of the play as both Beatrice and Benedick are duped into revealing their deep-seated love for each other. The scenes where Egolf and Innvar creep around the stage in order to ascertain what each other really thinks are marvelous for their physicality and utter goofiness.
The grittier scheme concocted by the bastard brother of Don Pedro is where the darkness of intrigue almost destroys the happiness of the young couples. Don John's malice and deep-seated anger towards his brother descends on Claudio and Hero. He and his henchmen devise a scheme to dishonor Hero and to bring grief and even death to Leonato's household. The seemingly smiling, agreeable villain is an early harbinger of Othello's Iago. Though written much later, we see Shakespeare already playing with the idea of an unfathomable hatred which will ensnare all that it encompasses. "Any bar, any cross, any impediment will be medicinal to me."
How the plot is tangled and untangled creates an entertaining, fast-paced production which respects Shakespeare's intent and style. The stage pictures are arresting, and the physical movements flow on the striking set designed by Michael Anania. The columns and backdrop, bathed in Mediterranean light by Philip S. Rosenberg, abound with orange trees and huge potted plants which lend themselves to hidden eavesdroppers.
The thirties costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti are elegant and vibrant and reflect the idea of modern elements over riding ancient customs. Masks and veils, staples of Shakespeare's artifice, are the antithesis of 20th century chic. Andrew Gerle's original score and Cassie Abates' choreography are integral to the play's enchantment and forward motion. The musicians onstage are an effective complement to Boyd's utterly charming production, filled with laughter and linguistic dexterity.
The secondary characters are as effective as Innvar and Egolf with an uproarious John Cariani as Dogberry, the "master of Malapropisms." His mispronunciation and general language confusion only serve to highlight the fact that no one seems to be a master of his wits, even those seemingly in charge, though Shakespeare's first truly comic cop is the one to restore order and to reunite all of the lovers. Though he is an "ass" he "apprehends" what the others have failed to realize.
This production is not ponderous or stilted. All of the actors have strong and clear articulation and the action flies along with fluid scene changes. There is nothing static and the use of the audience is true to a Globe production, yet feels fresh and natural.
This is a multi-layered play and though many audience members will be satisfied by the fact that the plotting is neatly resolved as the musicians strike up the lilting dance music to celebrate the happy couples on a sultry Sicilian evening, there is plenty to ponder on the ride home.
What does the "nothing" refer to? Is it really the Elizabethan slang for female genitalia, or is it the overblown interest in it at all costs that Shakespeare is deriding. Can Hero can ever forgive the callow and suspicious Claudio, and how will Don Pedro deal with his duplicitous brother? It is also obvious that we still live in a world where, in some areas, a woman's chastity is important to a man's self-esteem and where killing to maintain that honor is expected. Even the beautiful and intelligent Beatrice begs Benedick to kill Claudio and wishes she were a man in order to avenge her cousin's integrity. Shades of the future Lady Macbeth.
Much Ado About Nothing is amusingly provocative and reminds us that what is the most valuable is never a mere nothing.