Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
The Public Theater at Shakespeare in the Park
director: Jack O'Brien

FYI, an edited version of this piece appeared on NY Theater Review. I wanted a more complete record of the show, so I've decided to let everyone read the longer account! This version includes the effect of rain on the show the evening I saw it.

Lily Rabe & Hamish Linklater make as perfect a Beatrice & Benedick as you'll see,
despite (or because of?) their unorthodox choices
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The chemistry of Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, in their third collaboration onstage, makes a success out of a moody Much Ado About Nothing. Their Beatrice and Benedick are too clever, and have skin too thin, to let their guard down around each other. Linklater’s Benedick is an angry, edgy guy who craves attention; Rabe’s Beatrice half-regrets her own lack of interest in love. And when she overhears a list of her faults as reasons for Benedick to steer clear, this Beatrice sobs with self-reproach and emotional confusion. Rabe and Linklater imbue the air of the Delacorte with melancholy—even when one of them is dangling from a fruit tree—and add an emotional richness to Shakespeare’s comedy.

Building on these ironic performances of merry sadness, Jack O’Brien’s Much Ado shows his mastery of stagecraft and focus of vision. The few flaws detract a little, but are easily overlooked—especially given the perfection inherent in the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park. John Lee Beatty’s long stage offers several playing areas for O’Brien, primarily the terrace of a Sicilian villa, c. 1900, but also a balcony for Beatrice in her first volley with Benedick (a typically clever nod to another pair of Shakespearean lovers), a set of vegetable gardens, and a rather overused fountain. It’s both public and private, bustling with servants, ripe for eavesdropping and rumor. O’Brien also emphasizes the atmosphere of celebration, with masks and music imparting a ready friskiness to the household’s daily affairs.
For me, Mitchell singing "Hey Nonny Nonny" was the show's high point.
(photo: Joan Marcus)
But given its solidly realistic sensibility, the show’s few moments of enchantment seem incongruous (albeit lovely). Brian Stokes Mitchell harmonizes least with the show’s prevalent mode of playing. He plays Don Pedro with a hearty gusto and a sailor’s laugh, and with none of the psychology of Rabe and Linklater. Yet his participation in a round of “Hey Nonny Nonny” makes that misfit moot, and his skill at the verse and bass voice suggests great potential as a Shakespearean actor (as far as I can tell, the closest he's come has been his Tony-winning perf in Kiss Me Kate). His lusty 2D approach is complemented by his stage-brother, Pedro Pascal as Don John. Nearer to Linklater & Rabe's method is John Glover, an experienced Shakespearean, who makes a great role out of Leonato, especially in his grief at his daughter’s supposed infidelity. As for the sentimental lovers, Ismenia Mendes and Jack Cutmore-Scott fill their roles generically. More interesting is ZoĆ« Winters, who brings a sexy vivacity to the small role of Margaret, the duped accomplice in Don John's intrigues.

But this review comes with a caveat: the night I attended Much Ado, it drizzled all through the show. The weather’s effect on the show’s energy is hard to gauge, but it probably dampened the audience’s spirit at least. The actors never lost their focus but some adapted to the circumstances better than others. John Pankow, as Dogberry, effortlessly upped the tempo to his schtick, as if he were ready to skip the curtain call and meet us at the alehouse. Scenes like Claudio’s ceremony of remorse for wronging Hero, on the other hand, probably would’ve been stolid even on a lovely night.

Best of all, however, was Linklater’s casual “whoop, that’s wet” as he sat on a chair, mid-soliloquy—the biggest laugh of the night, until Rabe entered and perched herself onstage to chat with him. She winced too, and only then noticed Linklater’s warning gesture. The tart, ironic charm of her invitation to sit with her, and his disgruntled acceptance, epitomized their interpretations of the characters. It was a perfect you-had-to-be-there moment of spontaneous theater.
I'm not a fan of realistic sets in Shakespeare—they tend to muddle the location
rather than clarify it—but Beatty's design is lovely
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Sisters

"As a contemporary woman in New York City, it's hard to empathize with a girl who is as compliant, dainty and well-behaved as Hero. I've had this issue when watching other actors perform her as well—here you a have a modern woman, Beatrice, essentially behaving as a man in a man's world—and there's Hero next to her: she's quiet, obedient, and for most women today, absolutely infuriating."

Hero (Ismenia Mendes, center) is always chaperoned when she's near a window
(photo: Joan Marcus)
That’s Ismenia Mendes, who I interviewed for New York Theater Review. Mendes plays Hero to Lily Rabe’s Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing this month in Central Park. Shakespeare’s other show in the Park is yet another King Lear, to star John Lithgow. But I’m more curious to see Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht as his bad daughters, Goneril and Regan.

Shakespeare wrote several plays with great sister dynamics. In tragedy, the sorority is usually a triad: Lear’s three daughters, the trio of Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca, and (of course) those Weird Sisters. In comedy, the relationship is a binary one, and it’s one of his earliest relationships, starting with Kate the Shrew and her devious sister, and continuing through to Rosalind and her faithful Celia. You could even look at Twelfth Night’s relationship between Viola and her mistress as Shakespeare’s final, kinky word on the subject.

The girls are usually sisters or cousins, both lacking a mother (in Love’s Labor’s, they’re a courtly quartet, a real sorority). Early in Shakespeare’s career, the girls are sometimes inadvertent rivals (Two Gentlemen, Midsummer), a complication that tests their love for each other. In other variations, one girl is modest and the other is saucy (Taming, Love’s Labor’s), a conflict of personalities that allows Shakespeare to contrast methods of wooing. Much Ado drops the first conflict to focus on the second, and I think it’s the acme of this sister dynamic.

Like Mendes points out, Hero can come across as bland on her own. She’s a medieval figure, the Virtuous Maiden, passive and obedient, a girl who exists solely as a unit in marital brokerage. She’s idealized by the men, who describe her as as “gentle,” “modest”, and (repeatedly) “fair”—a generic set of epithets. Even in 1597, Beatrice was more modern and more interesting. But Hero isn’t merely a docile foil for her tart cousin.
Hero (Ismenia Mendes) finds her main defender in Beatrice (Lily Rabe).
Are you going to argue with her?
(photo: Joan Marcus)
What’s great about Hero and Beatrice is that they have such different personalities yet they’re so deeply fond of each other. Beatrice teases Hero about marriage, and Hero, maybe acting out of sentiment or maybe in retaliation, gulls Beatrice into a romance. And no matter how roughly an actress plays Beatrice, it’s tempered by her love for Hero. In one of Shakespeare’s best scenes ever, her sisterly love inspires Benedick to challenge his best friend to a duel of honor. Hero may lack Beatrice’s vivacity but she has Beatrice’s trust. There’s even a bit of Beatrice in Hero, when she flirts nimbly with Don Pedro at the masque. We might wish she was more like her cousin, but I think she’s more vivid a character than she’s given credit for.