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LETTERS TO EDITOR
Much Ado About Nothing
by Les Gutman
What Much Ado does have, and needs for a successful production, is a very funny duo (that would be Benedick (Jimmy Smits) and Beatrice (Kristen Johnston)), and one outrageous man, Don John (Christopher Evan Welch). As a bonus, it's nice when it can offer a comedy-enhancing Dogberry (Brian Murray) after the intermission.
Director David Esbjornson seems to recognize this, and delivers the best directed Shakespeare in the Park in recent years, unencumbered by extraneous gimmicks (some would call them directorial indulgences). The result is a happy one. As it should be.
This production doesn't fiddle with the play's locale -- it is set in Messina -- but the time period is moved forward a number of centuries: it is set in the post-World War I era. (The play itself, it should be noted, is not time specific to begin with.) Otherwise, it is quite straightforward, and Mr. Esbjornson's embellishments quite consistent with the play's intentions. (Some are more successful than others; and he comes close to overdoing the reminders of the 20th Century; but one, involving a hysterical bit of interaction between Benedick and a well, will likely stay in the audience's memory for quite some time.)
The cast is right on target everywhere it needs to be, and in some cases elsewhere as well. Kristen Johnson appears to have been born to play Beatrice, her feisty wit on full display here. Yet it is not a one-dimensional portrayal, and she does well conveying the character's more stressful moments with equal authority. Jimmy Smits rises to the challenge inherent in the comic pairing, and displays both a charm and wit that is most appealing. His seemingly natural facility with physical comedy is perhaps the show's biggest revelation, yet he must also be credited with finding a distinctly Sicilian sensibility.
Dressed in a gauche dark outfit that immediately identifies his nefariousness, Christopher Evan Welch couldn't be a better party-pooper. And yes, our Dogberry, Mr. Murray, brings the necessary comic touches, if perhaps more languidly than one might have wished. Among the remainder of the cast, Peter Francis James (as Don Pedro) and Dane Knell (as Dogberry's compadre Verges) are standouts.
That the real-life father-daughter pairing of Sam and Elizabeth Waterson as Leonato and Hero isn't as exciting in execution as it is in concept doesn't especially matter much. (It's worth remembering, also, that Waterson more or less jump-started his acting career by playing Benedick at the Public in 1972, and then on Broadway; his playbill bio notes that his dog is named Benedick.) His performance here is certainly adequate if slightly pedestrian; his daughter doesn't seem up to the task. Her Claudio (the dashing Lorenzo Pisoni) fares somewhat better.
Christine Jones' set makes ample use of the surrounding scenery, adding little beyond a grand Italian staircase and an arched doorway leading onto a lovely terrace overlooking, as it turns out, Central Park's Turtle Pond. The exception to this is a Broadway-ish backdrop containing a multitude of light bulbs, the payoff for which is itself much ado about nothing. Jess Goldstein adds most attractive costumes, and Michael Chybowski has supplied most effective lighting. A score by Mark Bennett, performed by musicians roaming about the proceedings and including a healthy dose of fine singing by, of all people, the Friar (Steven Skybell), adds immeasurably to the effect.
My guest at the Delacorte joked as we walked in, "It's a nice night for a wedding." Indeed, let's have two.
LINKS TO OTHER REVIEWS OF THIS PLAY
Stratford Festival NY Transfer
Shakespeare & Company
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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