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 Zoë 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)

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