Monday, February 18, 2013

Much Ado About Something

The something is a breezy production of Much Ado About Nothing by Theatre For a New Audience.  Last winter I saw TFANA’s Arin Arbus-directed production of The Taming of the Shrew  with Maggie Siff as Kate.  This year the same director pairs Maggie Siff as Beatrice with the marvelous Jonathan Cake as Benedick. 

TFANA makes excellent use of the space at the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street.  Again they create multiple playing levels by using the catwalk above the two-stepped stage, plus a tree for climbing and hiding.  As if that weren’t enough, there’s an extra variable level: a swing for Beatrice, Benedick, then both to rise and fall on.  This clever, compact scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez is both warm and practical, as is the lighting design by Donald Holder.  Director Arbus set the play in Italy before World War I, so the men’s costuming is fairly modern while the women are still in the confining clothing of the prewar period, illustrating the difference in levels of social freedom accorded to each sex, which feeds the Don John subplot that casts doubt on Hero’s chastity.  That said, the costuming by Constance Hoffman is less than exciting, but the hair is fabulous.

Any production of Much Ado must find the balance between the light and dark of its two storylines, since the lightness of the primary romance between the juvenile and the ingénue is darkened by the evil machinations of Don John.  Claudio and Hero are such dull creatures that they couldn’t carry a standard romance, so Shakespeare threw in the classical “chaste-maid-falsely-accused” plot to keep it moving.  Unfortunately for a modern audience this plot causes some issues; for instance, we cannot understand why Margaret does not speak up immediately upon recognizing her own actions falsely ascribed to Hero as the bride is falsely accused at the church.  But not to worry.  Beatrice and Benedick elucidate all while falling more deeply in love. 

Cake and Siff are good partners, their sprightly badinage a challenge and a delight to classical actors.  Reluctant lovers Beatrice & Benedick are the ancestors of every good romantic team in theatre and film — think Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in, well, anything.  Maggie Siff is having a fine time as Beatrice, but is not having quite as much fun as Jonathan Cake is having with Benedick — he’s having such a lark that he almost sweats his beard off.  Seeing this production makes me think of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, that of the spectacularly funny opening credits, and the magical connection between Branagh and then-wife Emma Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice.  They were magnificent because of the sparks each created in the other.  Siff and Cake are good, but the magic doesn’t quite happen. 
Photo by Richard Perry (c) 2013 New York Times

I recall that Michelle Beck’s performance as Celia in the Bridge Project’s As You Like It was uneven, and here, too, she sometimes overcomes the character Hero as written, then other times succumbs to the blandness, as most actors do.  Her occasional flashes of anger at her accuser are most welcome.  Matthew Amendt’s Claudio is childishly enthusiastic, then jealous, and his work at the tomb of his bride is moving, but his Claudio has less depth than Ms. Beck’s Hero.

Graham Winton is a vulnerable Don Pedro, and his proposal to Beatrice is quite touching, her rejection even more painful.  John Keating, not unusually, plays two opposite roles and both quite well, the priest and Verges.

Robert Langdon Lloyd does heartfelt work as Leonato, father of Hero. It’s always good to see Peter Maloney, here twice blessed as Leonato’s brother Antonio and the Sexton.  John Christopher Jones’ Dogberry stumbled over the English language with veracity and vigor.

Denis Butkus and Paul Niebanck work well together as Conrade and Borachio respectively, the followers of the villainous Don John, who is played with a quirky intensity by Saxon Palmer.

Kate MacCluggage is quite entertaining as the overly friendly Margaret.  Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as her pal Ursula is rather amateurish — she seems to be playing a stock character, in common with the other tertiary characters such as Balthazar and the Watch.

.  Cake as Benedick and Siff as Beatrice.  Photo (c) 2013 by Gerry Goodstein

The company is charming and energetic and the audience is happy to spend a few hours with them.  Arin Arbus’ leading actors did fine work together, always returning to the witty and swell repartee of Beatrice and Benedick.  This Much Ado About Nothing is a cleverly pleasant evening in the theatre and runs through April 6th.

~ Molly Matera, signing off once I’ve ordered the DVD of the Branagh film.

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