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A CurtainUp Review
Much Ado About Nothing
By Les Gutman
Jack O'Brien begins his first ever directing gig in the park with a few moments you won't find in any Shakespearean quarto or folio. They convey to us where we are and when (no surprises here: the setting has not been "transported" anywhere), and they also remind us, lest we forget, that we are entering a world of magic and miracles.
Once that introduction gets out of the way, this is, largely, a familiar rendition of the play, with lots of familiar faces on stage, and also in the design areas. What's really refreshing about this production, however, is how well it balances an intelligent mastery of the play's language with accessibility. This is not a production that force feeds contemporary resonance to the audience, and yet the performances mostly ring true on contemporary American terms. It is a very pleasing result.
Perhaps no one sets this tone more than John Glover. His Leonato is forceful, interesting and yet thoroughly unaffected. No staging of this play can get very far without a Beatrice and Benedick that hit on all cylinders. And in the two park veterans who have been cast here, Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, we have the makings of a theatrical match made in heaven. (So much so that it is almost impossible to avoid thinking of their return in some future season as Kate and Petrucio.) Rabe is sassy and smart and yet, of course, with peeks of vulnerabilty. It all rings true. Linklater is exceptionally effective if perhaps surprisingly modulated. Nothing feels forced in his performance, but the biggest surprise is that he manages to locate a nobility in Benedick that registers as something of a revelation.
Among the rest of the cast, the particular standout has Brian Stokes Mitchell, who is a most commanding presence as Don Pedro. For those worried they will be deprived of hearing his baritone pipes, fear not; composer David Yazbek has a nice surprise in store. Also especially noteworthy are the Claudio of Jack Cutmore-Scott, David Manis's Antonio (he is also quite fun as Verges) and, surprisingly enough, Eric Sheffer Stevens, as the servant Borachio.
There are no embarrassments in this cast: everyone else does solid work. The two disappointments to me were also surprising: John Pankow's Dogberry is perfectly fine but he isn't able to master the challenging malapropisms in a way that makes the character such a hilarious baffoon, and Pedro Pascal's Don John, far from menacing, practically gets lost in the woodwork. (It doesn't help that my memory of these two roles from a decade ago are of Brian Murray and the late Christopher Evan Welch, both of whom were superlative.)
O'Brien brings his usual polish to the production. This may be his first trip to the Park, but he has wisely assembled designers with deep experience at the Delacorte and the special challenges it brings. John Lee Beatty created an elegant two story mansion, with lots of doors and balconies that provide just enough of an interior to complement a largely outdoor setting. That outdoor area includes its own vegetable garden along the apron, and an "orchard" (though one more closely resembling an orange grove, and with quite ripe looking oranges.) Jane Greenwood dresses everyone astutely -- soldiers and townfolk, constables and cleric. Jeff Croiter lights the proceedings well and without undue fanfare, and Acme Sound Partners do their usual good job of making everyone heard, although with the usual (and probably unavoidable) loss of much sense of where voices are coming from if you don't see the mouth moving. Early in the evening, it seemed the evening might be spoiled by thunder and lightning. Though it wasn't, Croiter and Acme combine to bring us both on cue.
Also especially noteworthy in this production is the music. David Yazbek has composed a very nice score, providing plenty of tuneful melodies for the musicians to play and for the actors to sing and dance to. And those musicians (Nathan Koci, Joseph Brent and Cameron Collins), each playing multiple instruments, are great; they are augmented by Steel Burkhardt who, as Balthazar, brings along his own guitar. Finally, credit goes to Danny Mefford who, though credited simply with "movement," manages to get the cast moving with some most respectable and spirited choreography.
This is, by my count, the fifteenth review of Much Ado on CurtainUp. That astonishing number is obviously a testament to the play's popularity. This production does nothing to change that.
The 2004 Park Production of Much Ado