Several days ago, Charles Isherwood of The New York Times took Off-Broadway’s Much Ado About Nothing to task for being “determined to underline this comedy’s more pessimistic, even gloomy aspects.” Ouch! But a recent visit to the Theatre for a New Audience production revealed more to the story: Isherwood is certainly not incorrect in his diagnosis, but to my eye, this “gloominess” is the production’s strength, not its weakness.
Much Ado is one of the stranger Shakespeare plays in the canon. The plot’s lighthearted tricks and easy engagements—nice but forgettable—are viciously shattered halfway through the evening when a jilting takes place. Believing his fiancé Hero to be inconstant, Claudio (the exquisite Matthew Amendt) rips into her, calling her (among many things) a “rotten orange” with nothing “but the sign and semblance of her honor.” As directed by Arin Arbus, the scene is unrelentingly cruel. Claudio’s heartlessness is chilling, and Hero’s sad, withering figure makes you look away. This new and unexpected tone takes up residence for most of the rest of the play. What once was breezy and jokey becomes strange and dark.
Of course, the story’s machinations reunite the couple by the play’s end, but one feels here that Hero and Claudio will need to have some serious talks before they can enjoy marital bliss. Michael Friedman‘s ominous score, baleful even at the wedding, communicates this message, too, and it carries the audience out of the theater on an uneasy note.
Much Ado should have exactly this uncomfortable effect. After all, any production of the play that ignores the cruelty of Claudio’s false accusations can’t be true to life. Would you cheerily reenter an engagement with nothing more than a quick apology, after having been reamed out by your beloved at the altar? Didn’t think so. By acknowledging the hatefulness inherent in the play, this production aligns its inner workings with those of the real world. For a 400-year old piece of writing to do that—no easy feat—warrants a thumbs up in my book.
photo by Nella Vera