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?


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