Saturday, June 14, 2014

Much Ado About Summer Shakespeare

At the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park last Friday, Jack O’Brien’s production of Much Ado About Nothing tripped the light fantastic. Nature cooperated with clear skies and a balmy evening. Only the helicopters interfered.
The home of Leonato.  Photo credit Matt Hennessy
Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing is a delightful play but carries no guarantees. If there’s no chemistry between the romantic leads, Beatrice and Benedick, the play will fall flat. Even if they sparkle, the play can still be brought down by bad timing among the clowns. The most difficult obstacle the play must overcome for a modern audience is the cruel (not to mention unfounded) behavior of Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato toward Hero. This was the downfall of the Joss Whedon film, set in modern times. O’Brien’s production is set in a non-specific (probably late 19th century) past, when rules of behavior were strictly enforced, at least for women. The problem of how to like or respect a Hero who could forgive the idiotic Claudio without appearing to be a dishrag can only be solved by the actor.
Don Pedro masked
Having cast the right Beatrice and Benedick, O’Brien went on to solve problems the play hadn’t had when Shakespeare wrote it: Our 21st century world is a far cry from that of the 16th Century. We wonder how on earth the Prince and Claudio could be outside Hero’s window and mistake Margaret for the young heroine, even though both Imeria Mendes (Hero) and Zoë Winters (Margaret) are petite brunettes?  A lightning storm momentarily distracts us, until we realize it’s part of the production -- an O’Brien solution using the expert lighting design by Jeff Croiter. We wonder how people hear disparate rumors about for whom Don Pedro is wooing Hero, so Mr. O’Brien – in conjunction with dramaturge Dakin Matthews - has Leonato’s slightly dotty brother Antonio overhear only part of the conversation, therefore report it inaccurately. Now we understand perfectly.  Bravo O’Brien and Matthews.

The next problem was solved by the director and actor’s belief in Shakespeare’s world. The portrayal of Hero by Imeria Mendes was the best I have ever, ever seen. As the most innocent and forgiving of Shakespearean ingenues, Hero’s obedience and malleability often come across as foolish, making her seem a born victim. Ms. Mendes’ interpretation shows us a young woman living her faith in her (and Shakespeare’s) belief system. When accusations against her are proven false, Hero’s forgiveness is gracious and righteous. The purity of Imeria Mendes’ Hero makes forgiveness, and therefore hope, possible.

Having seen the fine work of Lily Rabe previously (as Rosalind in As You Like It), I knew she’d make a sharp and sparkling Beatrice. After all, both Beatrice and Rosalind have the verbal wit to best any man.  Ms. Rabe’s elucidation of complex language while getting every laugh available was on point throughout the evening. Hamish Linklater as Benedick was goofy as well as witty, and an excellent foil to Ms. Rabe’s Beatrice. Mr. Linklater is physically and verbally hilarious.  They are a well-matched comedic couple.

John Glover as Leonato was overflowing with emotion, liltingly Italian while precise in his verse; Brian Stokes Mitchell was sophisticated and lusty as Don Pedro. A high point of the play was when he sang along with Balthazar (Steel Burkhardt) on “Sigh No More,” holding that last note of Hey Nonny Nonny for a strong, long and beautiful coda to the joyous interlude.
Imeria Mendes as Hero and Lily Rabe as Beatrice.  Photo Credit Joan Marcus.
The evening’s entertainment began in Italian, the residents of Leonato’s estate sounding warm and light, their musical chatter dancing on the breeze. Geraniums, tomatoes and pepper plants (with a light scent of insect repellant) lent their color and juices to the morning duties of the people dressed in relaxed yet period costumes by Jane Greenwood. In the opening idyllic scenes, we learn that the handsome young man lackadaisically tending to the tomato plants is Borachio (Eric Sheffer Stevens). He’s part of Leonato’s household, and as he is a bit lazy, we know he’d enjoy coming into some easy money. Mr. Stevens’ early, silent character work sets up the plot point that will so affect the fate of the main characters later on.

The gentle movements of characters performing morning chores in the garden and petite villa designed by John Lee Beatty shape and color the world of the play. Each member of the household is revealed at the windows and balconies as they hear the day’s news. Leonato speaks the first English words of the evening as reads Don Pedro’s message that he has won his war and is returning home.

A potential problem of any Shakespeare play is unfunny clowns bogging down the comic scenes. In Much Ado, the clowns are the police. Happily John Pankow is a fine Dogberry, that great mangler of the English language. Pankow plays the Constable of the Watch naturalistically, funny in Italian and English.  With David Manis doubling as a hilariously fragile and pugnacious Antonio as well as the almost intelligent Verges, Dramaturge Matthews’ judicious editing cut Verges and some ineffective dialogue out of two scenes. This allowed Pankow’s Dogberry to drive solo through conversations with the Sexton and then Leonato, thereby keeping those scenes lightly tripping along.
Lily Rabe as Beatrice and Hamish Linklater as Benedick (Photo Credit the Public Theater)
Finally, many a Don John — the bastard brother of Don Pedro, the villain of the piece — is a dull dog, merely angry.  Pedro Pascal’s Don John was lithe and witty and his pleasure at the misery of others closed the first act with a big grin, leaving the audience laughing.

Technical aspects were good but for the level of Lily Rabe’s microphone, which was disconcertingly louder than the rest of the cast’s the night I saw the play. Worthy of mention are the excellent hair and wig design by Tom Watson, movement design by Danny Mefford, and music direction by Nathan Koci.  The whole cast deserves praise, for the only false notes in the evening came from those helicopters.

The sweetly romantic and very funny Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing runs only through July 6th, so take a day off and wait in line for this one.  It’s worth it.
The cast on John Lee Beatty's set (c) 2014 The Public Theater

~ Molly Matera, signing off to listen to some happy Italian singing…

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