Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (The Public Theater)

Benedick (Michael Braun) and Beatrice (Samantha Soule)
are too wise to woo peaceably, so they commit to a merry war
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
After a three-week barnstorming tour of the five boroughs, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit returns home to the Public. Presumably the rehearsal period for this Much Ado About Nothing was as brisk as its 100-minute runtime or 21-day tour, since it has a spontaneity that’s refreshing after an autumn of elaborate and often artificial Shakespeare.

The show opens to swanky synthetic music and an intro for each character, lightly suggests a world found mainly in reality TV. The conceit reinforces the play’s exploration of eavesdropping and of toying with other people’s romantic lives. But director Kwame Kwei-Armah barely acknowledges such frippery as concept or theme, and leaves the spectacle to Broadway. Instead, he directs the cast to perform with a conversational clarity. His tone fits the design, which suggests the show’s origin as a touring production: a 15’x15’ square of artificial turf for the stage, a boombox for sound, minimal props, and whatever lighting is available. The costuming has a factory-made, off-the-rack look: women in pink dresses and gaudy heels, men in inoffensive khakis and blazers.

That DIY design means that the actors must hold the audience’s focus unaided (all the more firmly for the Mobile Unit’s audiences, presumably unaccustomed to regular theatergoing). With eight actors taking 15 roles, their approach to playing is broad rather than refined (Shakespeare’s script is helpfully prose-heavy). More practiced than rehearsed, the style favors the comedic subplots over the romantic ones. So, predictably, Dogberry and the Watch make a strong impression. Lucas Caleb Rooney triumphantly leads the clowns, preening and bullying his way through a mockery of an interrogation. He also earns hisses from the audience as Don John, whose petty acts of villainy run from defaming the ingenue Hero before her wedding to bogarting his henchman’s joint.

But the company’s rough style does short the play’s more passionate scenes to some extent. The only scenes that measure up to the comic turns are those later scenes of romantic negotiation between Beatrice and Benedick. Samantha Soule’s Beatrice takes no BS, and her demand that Benedick challenge his friend to a duel puts him at a loss for words for the first time in the play. Ironically, she and her Benedick, Michael Braun, do better with the tough romantic wooing than with the scenes where they’re tricked into loving each other—usually a showcase of farce, here a set of stumbles that are the show’s only missed opportunity.

That flaw, however, is balanced by Kwei-Armah’s one addition to Shakespeare’s action. Late in the play, Claudio, the juvenile lead, makes a public apology at Hero’s tomb. In this staging, Hero eavesdrops on the scene and then decides, with a thought and a gesture, whether or not to forgive him. It’s a brilliant silent moment that gives the young woman a measure of autonomy and amends an outmoded aspect of the plot, as well as echoing the scenes of spying that Much Ado is packed with. It’s the sort of detail that makes this Much Ado as strong as this fall’s more elaborate (and expensive) Shakespeare.
Hero decides to wed Claudio,
despite his betrayal, and so redeems him
(photo: Carol Rosegg)


Incidentally, I interviewed this production's Leonato, Ramsey Faragallah, for New York Theater Review. Once he read Shakespeare in his California high school, he "became actively interested in things other than surfing, street racing and loud music." Me too.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Malvolio and the Latest Twitter Hoax

Does Maria make a fool of Malvolio, or does he do it to himself?
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Maybe you read about this Thanksgiving weekend’s viral entertainment; if not, here’s the short version. On a delayed flight, a woman took the inconvenience personally and complained loudly. Her fellow passenger decided to pass the time by calling her out on her egotism and goading her via a set of notes. He also publicized his actions via social media. You can read it here.

As memes go, it’s kind of implausible (in fact, skeptics have already started to debunk the story). Still, many readers and viewers have applauded the passenger’s behavior, contending that the woman deserved it for her rudeness.  But I found the whole situation ugly. Even putting aside issues of gender, age, race, and social station (some of which were explicit factors in the targeting, others implicit), I recoiled from the punitive quality of the humiliation.

Shakespeare fans will recognize the scenario as a gulling. In the Shakespearean and Restoration eras, English audiences particularly enjoyed a comic plot which saw ill-mannered character tricked into humiliating themselves. The most famous target is Malvolio, while the Beatrice/Benedick subplot features gulling at its most benign. But once you look for the device, you’ll start to notice some sort of trick or dupe in nearly every one of Shakespeare’s plays.

In the case of Twelfth Night, productions often mitigate Malvolio’s humiliation or apologize for it by making his exit sympathetic. While I do think Shakespeare applies the device with a touch of ambiguity, for the sake of artistic complexity, it’s only a touch. Like Shylock, Malvolio is meant to get punished and banished from the stage; that’s part of the comedy, in an archetypal sense. But those productions are uncomfortable with the abuse of Malvolio.

And so am I. I have a lot of trouble with gulling as a device and (depending on the play and production) I don’t like Shakespeare when he uses it. I recoil inwardly when Titania learns that she’s spent the night with a beast. I had the same reaction to the Thanksgiving Gulling of 2013. It was ugly behavior on both players’ parts. But I suppose it should hearten directors to see that audiences can enjoy a gulling with as much cruel humor today as they could 400 years ago.


Someone on my Facebook feed has pointed out that the perpetrator of the airline gulling produces a reality TV show. That makes sense, and links directly the pleasure of watching the upstart of Shakespearean drama get his comeuppance and that of watching the fools of reality TV humiliate themselves.