Saturday, February 23, 2013

Shakespeare Notebook: Much Ado About Nothing

Once again, Beatrice gets the better of Benedick
photo: Gerry Goodstein

TFANA at the Duke on 42nd Street
directed by Arin Arbus
Feb. 16, 2013

Happily, this taut Off-Broadway staging of Much Ado is less schmaltzy than most versions, approaching the play as an adult romance rather than a romantic comedy. In a nod to the script's characterization of Beatrice & Benedick's relationship as a “merry war”, director Arin Arbus shows an Italian court where men woo women with salvos of wit and negotiate marriages like they do treaties. It's no surprise when, in the play's main plot, a young aristo too readily doubts his fiancee's fidelity, since he's always approached romance with suspicion. And if love is a battlefield, Beatrice and Benedick are Hector and Achilles. In that stupendous scene where Beatrice requests that Benedick “Kill Claudio”, she redraws the battle lines, and Benedick's acceptance of her charge suggests the brokerage of a separate peace.

Onstage too, the performers stand above their peers. Maggie Siff (who played a superb Kate in Taming of the Shrew last season) suggests that Beatrice hides a lonely soul with a tart tongue and chilly demeanor. Her stage partner, Jonathan Cake, shows less depth but more range, charming the audience with direct-address and arguing himself into love in soliloquies. A sweet scene on a swing together, fishing for compliments from each other and getting teased instead, makes superfluous their grudging admissions of affection in the final scene. The duo don't have perfect chemistry but they're talented enough—and the script's done so much already—that they're still a pleasure to watch.

The play's two other keys are Don John and Dogberry; one instigates the main plot and the other inadvertently unravels it. Both are tough roles to play. The motiveless malignance of John implies a full psyche, smart but antisocial (an extreme version of Bea and maybe Ben); in the role, Saxon Palmer relishes how the character hides his nature. Like the villain, the citizen-constable cannot articulate his deeper thoughts, but unlike John he utterly lacks guile. His foolery can get tiresome in many productions, but John Christopher Jones coaxes inspired laughs from his cracked vocal chords. The rest of the cast gives workmanlike performances, though a few servants make the most of their stage-time.

The stage (designed by Riccardo Hernandez) is simple: a raised playing area of wooden tile, ringed by realistic turf and a tree and bench upstage-right. The lighting (Donald Holder) is a little more complex, and consequently a little more fussy. The costuming (Constance Hoffman) sets the period, for no reason good or bad, in the Sicily of a century ago. But in general, the design stays out of the way so the actors' and the script can act the play. In this respect, Arbus' Much Ado doesn't surprise the audience with radical or unexpected interpretations. It's a professional production of a pleasurable play, accessible and satisfying.


Much Ado About Nothing plays at the Duke Theater through March 24. Tickets?


Monday, February 4, 2013

New Shows: Feb. 5-11

I'll pick an oddball for this week's spotlight: Nectarine EP at the Flea. It's a sort of radio-play based on The Odyssey. But before you skip ahead, note that it's not a simple adaptation―it's a weird aural experience, crazy downtown theater in a hip sonic style, the sort of work you're more likely to catch at Ars Nova or St. Ann's (see This Clement World below). Frankly, I'm not sure what to expect but I love sonic experiments and radio drama. And I also enjoy the Bats, the Flea Theater's young, in-house troupe. But there's plenty more to see if that doesn't interest you. I'd like to catch Zorro and a robot double-bill at the Japan Society. How about you?

where: The Wild Project
first night: Wednesday, Feb. 6
I mention this dance piece because it's based on the love poetry of Will Shakespeare. The concept is that it looks at the romances of three couples―aged 20, 40, & 60―to gain perspective on Shakespeare's own views.

where: Irish Rep
first night: Thursday, Feb. 7
A musical adaptation of The Quiet Man, that classic cinematic slice of Irish-American cornpone by John Ford and John Wayne. An American prizefighter, retires to Ireland after killing an opponent in the ring, falls for a lass, and tries to avoid a fight with her mulish brother. Actually, it's perfect material for a musical adaptation.

where: Theater Row
first night: Wednesday, Feb. 6
A sort of essay on food and life leavened with literature and staged for audiences. A half-dozen actors take on roles from Homer to Hemingway. Inexplicably, food is neither cooked nor served during the performance.

where: Signature Theater
first night: Friday, Feb. 8
This show's creative process sounds great. The company mounts a work, from script to production, within four months. It opens opportunities for more relevant and current drama. But this play―which is about coming out, gay violence, and taking responsibility for youthful indiscretion―doesn't sound especially a la mode.

where: Access Theater
first night: Friday, Feb. 8
The Bedlam Theater had a surprise hit last season in Saint Joan. Their fresh take on Shaw will be revived in March. In the meantime, catch their new work, a four-person Hamlet. Such a small cast should make this famously long play move briskly.

where: The Japan Society
first night: Thursday, Feb. 7
These two one-acts address the integration of robots into the home as caretakers and servants. Unlike most scifi theater, however, robots and androids actually play the roles! A Japanese theater company has collaborated with Osaka University's cybernetics department to stage this show. It raises all sorts of cool questions about live performance, doesn't it?

where: Incubator Arts Project
first night: Friday, Feb. 8
A classic Noh drama by the master of the form (a 17C gent by the name of Zeami) gets a 21C American upgrade. The sentimental script has a prostitute pine for her aristo lover till she goes mad. The staging, however, sets this Zen tale of seasons and emotions in a modern context of maximalism and plastic disposability.

where: City Center Stage 1
first night: Tuesday, Feb. 4
MTC builds their winter programming around strong middle-aged actresses, and everybody wins! Laurie Metcalf has lifted the company's Broadway show above a mediocre script; this premiere stars Edie Falco. She's a woman who abandons her comfy life. So it's a middle-class comedic drama. But a woman wrote this play, another directs; it's great to see that.

where: New Victory Theater
first night: Friday, Feb. 8
A rapier slashes the letter Z―the mark of Zorro! The masked avenger from Mexican California, the original Hispanic-American hero, takes the stage of the New Vic, to the delight of kids and youthful adults like me. This Scottish production has three actors play all the roles of a rousing adventure.

where: Classic Stage Company
first night: Friday, Feb. 8
Sondheim's '94 musical divided audiences in its premiere & led to his temporary devaluation. CSC gives the show its first NYC revival and hands the reins to John Doyle. He's the Brit who reinvigorated SS by putting musical instruments into his perfomers' hands.

where: Roundabout at the Laura Pels
first night: Friday, Feb. 8
Lanford Wilson's two-hander about a last chance at romance won the Pulitzer in '80;  in recent years, its quiet, heartfelt style has come back into style onstage. This Off-B'way revival costars Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson, a brilliant pair of actors perfectly cast, but the director (Michael Wilson) has rarely impressed me.

where: St. Ann's Warehouse
first night: Tuesday, Feb. 4
If you haven't seen the work of Cynthia Hopkins, you really ought to. Here's another chance, with her eclectic music and fiction backing documentary footage of her trip to the Arctic Circle. The subject, naturally, is the environment, but it's less pessimistic on the subject than you'd predict.