Much Ado About Much Ado

Much Ado About Nothing 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

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YOU MIGHT ENJOY…
– Sad Summer Shakespeare
As You Like It, in the Park
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Oh, for a Muse of Pixels…

Charles Edwards and Eve Best in rehearsal for “Much Ado About Nothing”

Shakespeare is taking to the airwaves…

Not to be outdone by the National’s NTLive, the Globe Theatre in London is inaugurating its own theatrical broadcast season this fall. It’s called “Globe on Screen,” and will feature All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, and Doctor Faustus, beamed to movie theaters around the world.

NT Live has shown wonderful (if unavoidably watered down) productions, so here’s hoping Globe on Screen follows suit. As for me, I’ll be at Much Ado for Eve Best’s take on Beatrice. (Can I get an “Amen,” “Nurse Jackie” fans?)

It’s interesting how little hang up the Brits have about this theatrical broadcast thing. The National and the Globe aside, they’ve also got DigitalTheatre.com, a kind of iTunes for filmed versions of plays. Producers from the Royal Court to Sonia Friedman have shows available for rent or purchase, and while the venue (your computer screen!) isn’t ideal, it’s better than nothing.

PBS’s “Great Performances” excepted, American theater is much more strictly limited to its in-the-flesh audience. What’s behind the holdup—union craziness? inadequate funding? lack of demand? What do you think?

In the meantime, check out Globe on Screen trailer, below:

Photo by Marc Brenner

Favorite Moment: As You Like It

David Furr and Lily Rabe. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There’s plenty to love in the Public’s As You Like It in the Park: the killer cast, the relaxed style, and the lucid storytelling for starters. Director Dan Sullivan’s interpretation puts to focus squarely on the text, so left to pore over the wordy jewels Shakespeare weaves into his story, you’re sure to encounter your own thematic insights.

I, personally, was most struck by the wonderful kindnesses in the play. Over and over, to degrees large and small, people expecting hardship and aggression encounter unexpected generosity.

My favorite of these kindnesses—and my favorite moment of this production—came when banished Orlando storms into the Duke’s forest campsite, momentarily holding the thoughtful Jaques hostage. “I almost die for food,” shouts Orlando, “and let me have it.”

The response of the onlooking Duke? “Sit down and feed and welcome to our table.” This immediate assent disarms Orlando. “Speak you so softly?” he says. “Pardon me I pray you.” Orlando then joins their woodsy meal as a brother, not a threat.

In this and other moments, As You Like It posits charity as the ultimate act of diplomacy. Not only does it diffuse tense moments, it turns enemies into friends, rivals into comrades.

Maybe She’s Born With It… Maybe It’s Cymbeline

Someone must be focus-grouping hands these days…

Either way, Fiasco Theater’s “Cymbeline” is a wonderful off-Broadway jaunt. The antique scholars quoted in the program angrily remark on the “absurdity,” “confusion,” and “impossibility” of the play, one of Shakespeare’s late Romances, but Fiasco makes theatrical virtues out of these perceived downfalls. See it if only for the magical “bedroom scene,” one of the most beautiful and gripping scenes ever committed to the stage.

Sad Summer Shakespeare

We’ve all seen what I like to call Sad Summer Shakespeares, limp little salads of productions wilted by their naïve enthusiasm and self-important claims of universalism. Mix your fork around in one of these creations too intently, sniff a little too hard, and the dramaturgy, acting, and storytelling reveal themselves as pallid cauliflower, rubbery carrots, and decaying lettuce. Waiter, thanks but no thanks!

The scene of the Sad Summer Shakespeare crime is usually a public park, a civics center, or a geriatric watering hole. “Accessible Shakespeare!” or “Shakespeare for everyone!” is the rallying call of their half-baked director-chefs. Throw together one of those old Bardic standards for The People, they seem to believe, and you’re golden.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this idea – on paper it sounds pretty ideal. (Sometimes it is: the Public’s free Shakespeare in the Park is often a heart-quickening confluence of space, audience, and thought—a Wolfgang Puck of a summer salad, as it were.)

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