2/15/13 CurtainUp
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A CurtainUp Review
Much Ado About Nothing

Are you good men and true?— Dogberry
Jonathan Cake and Maggie Siff
(Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)
Shakespeare's lively romantic comedy, is in full blaze at the Duke on 42nd Street, helmed by Arin Arbu and co-starring the American actress Maggie Siff and British actor Jonathan Cake. Though the chemistry between Siff and Cake never quite catches fire, there's enough wit sparking on stage to compensate for their lukewarm passion.

With all the Much Ados of recent years, you might think that the comedy has been drained dry. Not so. Arbus makes it more serious, more soul-searching, and more high stakes. She sets the action against the backdrop of pre-World War I in Italy, that time when the nation realized that war was at its door and needed to be confronted head on. She retains the romantic atmosphere without going theatrically over-the-top with gooey sentimentality. Instead she balances the exuberance of the young lovers with their angst, their earnest faith with their fear of betrayal. The production is also colored by the cultural mores of the time — its patriarchal society and the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy

The able creative team emphasizes the subtle nuances of this complex play. Riccardo Hernandez's elegant set has wooden parquet floors, a narrow balcony level, a large leafy tree in the courtyard. There are just enough props to suggest the aristocratic status of Leonardo, the Governor of Messina, who presides over the goings on in this Italian village.

If Hernandez serves up elegance, Constance Hoffman settles for practicality in her costumes. The men's military outfits have clean precision, and the women's long dresses are attractive without being too ornate or fussy.

Donald Holder's handsome lighting is at its best when it's at half-tones. For example, he rightly puts the "unfaithful Hero" in silhouette (it is actually Hero's servant Margaret who is part of Don John's plot to destroy Claudio's wedding) to obscure her identity. Because things often are not what they seem in Messina, the muted lighting is perfect and teaches one of the central lessons of the play: You can't always trust your eyes (or a man's report) to reveal the truth!

When it comes to Shakespearean chops, Cake has the star turn here. Little wonder that he's performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and taken on such plum roles as Coriolanus. It's not just that he can wrap his mouth around the iambic pentameters, difficult as that is, but that his facial expressiveness ranges from the sheepish to the arrogant. He's a real stage-taker, perhaps not by conscious design but by his sheer excellence.

Siff verbally spars well with Cake but doesn't have the same ease with Shakespeare's language. She can tug laughs from the audience all the same, however. Her Beatrice surely qualifies as a woman's libber even though she pre-dates Gloria Steinem and the Women's Liberation Movement of the 70s.

The rest of the cast makes a good showing. John Christopher Jones's Dogberry getting top honors as the buffoonish constable who uncovers Don John's treachery. One critic summed up this character as a person who has an "unrequited love affair with the English language." Indeed his malapropisms are hilarious, and legion in this play.

If you are weary of Shakespeare productions that tend to be too far-fetched in their interpretations, then this Much Ado will be a good antidote. Arbus isn't trying to hit you over the head with any grand concept here, but she surely lets Shakespeare's classic comedy come alive with all its charm.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Directed by Arin Arbus
Cast: Maggie Siff (Beatrice), Jonathan Cake (Benedict), Matthew Amendt (Claudio), Michelle Beck (Hero), Denis Butkus (Conrade), Liam Forde (Balthasar/The Watch), John Christopher Jones (Dogberry), John Keating (Verges/Father Francis), Robert Langdon Lloyd (Leonato/The Watch), Kate MacCluggage (Margaret), Peter Maloney (Antonio/Sexton/The Watch), Paul Niebanck (Borachio), Saxon Palmer (Don John), Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Ursula), Spiff Wiegand (Musician/The Watch), Graham Winton (Don Pedro).
Set: Riccardo Hernandez
Costumes: Constance Hoffman
Lighting: Donald Holder
Original Music: Michael Friedman
Voice Director: Andrew Wade
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Choreography: Austin McCormick
Props Master: Starlet Jacobs
Production Stage Manager: Renee Lutz
The Duke on 42nd Street, located at. 229 W. 42nd Street. Tickets: $75 and may be purchased via phone at 646-223-3010 or via the web at www.Dukeon42.org
From 2/2/13; opening 2/17/13; closing 4/13//13.
Tuesdays through Saturdays @ 8pm; Saturday matinees @ 2pm; Sunday matinees @ 3pm. On Sunday, February 24th, there is a matinee @ 3pm and a 7pm show.
Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes including intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 2/15/13
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