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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespeare wrote this Much Ado as a respite from his weightier history plays. The operetta like Sicilian comedy makes much ado about the verbal fencing between Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, and Beatrice, the feisty lady destined -- by virtue of a prankish boost from their friends -- to live happily ever after. With not one but two romances, the second temporarily introducing some darker elements, Much Ado became one of the Bard's most popular plays. Its many revivals, not to mention the popular film version starring the then romantically involved Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (they split up shortly after the final screen kiss), may leave some theater goers greeting a new production with " what, another Much Ado?!?" But take my word for it, the Much Ado About Nothing that's currently at Shakespeare & Company's Founders Theatre is a freshly conceived concept that, unlike many attempts to update the Bardian canon, works like a charm. It's certainly the most delightful and lively production this writer can recall seeing!
Director Daniela Varon has ingeniously used the Messina, Sicily setting to move the action to the 1950's which opens up possibilities for all sorts of inventive new wrinkles. The most dramatic change transforms the traditional princedoms of Leonato and Don Pedro into two Mafia "families." Instead of soldiers we have men wearing dark suits and fedora hats and armed with shotguns and switchblades.
As Ms. Varon explains in her program notes, this being a period when the Mafia still called itself l'Honorata (The Honored Society) and was not yet completely and universally corrupt, Princes-cum-Godfathers and henchmen can convincingly counterpoint the Mafiosi's bad life with the joys of family, friendship, romance, dancing and singing. The tough guys are thus just honorable and romantic enough to do all this joyous stuff, leaving it to Don Pedro's illegitimate younger brother Don John to foreshadow the super-villains we associate with the Mafia.
And so, the ominous entrances of the shotgun toting "Family" members notwithstanding, the atmosphere throughout is festive and outrageously funny. It's all heavily punctuated with dancing and melodies; the latter a mix of Sicilian ditties and Frank Sinatra favorites like "Night and Day", "Begin the Begin", "I've Got You Under My Skin", and "Speak Low" If Shakespeare could come back to earth he might not recognize these Nonny, Nonnies but he would find his language and his plot intact.
With some of the Company's most reliable actors on stage, this witty production moves along without a dull moment. I didn't sneak a peek at my watch once during the three hours.
In case you're unfamiliar with or have forgotten the plot: Beatrice and Benedick are both so strong-willed that they clash before they can allow their true feelings to surface and admit that they're not as anti-marriage as they pretend. Their friends, convinced that they are made for each other, trick Benedick to believe Beatrice loves him madly and then play the same game with Beatrice. The gradual move from acrimony to matrimony is abetted by the secondary romance between Benedick's friend Claudio and Beatrice's cousin Hero. These lovers need little persuasion to plan a marriage but have a different and more serious trick played on them when the nasty brother Don John persuades Claudio that Hero is not the chaste virgin he thinks. Misunderstandings, deception, threats of duels and the involvement of the inept Constable Dogberry all lead to wedding bells for the two sets of lovers and the downfall of Don John.
No matter what the setting, the success of any production of this play depends to a large extend on its Benedick and Beatrice. Allyn Burrows is a spectacularly charming, funny and physically agile Benedick. Paula Lanton as Beatrice is not quite his match. She delivers her lines clearly enough but she tends to be more shrill than feisty. Shakespeare did skewer the deception scenes in Benedick's favor; still, after Burrows bravura turn as the dupe, Lanton's rendering of her half of this situation simply isn't as on the mark.
The cast is too large to comment on everyone. Malcolm Ingram and Jonathan Croy as Leonato and Don Pedro respectively are solid centers for the farcical doings. Jason Asprey is terrific as the villainous Don John. As for the Keystone Cops of this play, the "Watch" headed by Constable Dogberry -- I'm usually not too enthralled by these over the top types, but the staging and the performances of Jonathan Epstein and his little gang of incompetents is irresistibly funny.
Praise for the stage craft goes beyond any one scene. Cameron Anderson's airy set, ably lit by Matthew E. Adelson, is sophisticated and versatile enough to accommodate the farcical hide-and-seek episodes and the enjoyable song interludes. Jacqueline Firkins' costumes are a fun and authentic. Susan Dibble's choreography adds to the enjoyment, including a finale that gives even the wicked Don John a chance to dance back on stage.
Those who've been to the Founders Theater during its first few seasons at the impressive Kemble Street property will find a new thrust configuration. I found it an improvement over the original layout since it brings the stage closer to the audience and makes for increased intimacy and good sightlines wherever you sit. I can't wait to come back to see King Lear which will have several of the current play's cast members making quite a different sort of ado.
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