“Much Ado About Nothing” Isn’t Just a Comedy

Much Ado About Nothing

You can call it a comedy all you like, but MUCH ADO is nothing of the sort. Though often funny and sometimes hilarious, Shakespeare’s yarn of headstrong lovers is fascinatingly woven with threads of malice, cruelty and sadness.

Melancomedy” is more like it.

Onstage now in a wonderful Shakespeare in the Park production directed by Jack O’Brien, this MUCH ADO gets all the laughs you’d hope it would… but it also prompts rage at the injustices performed by fickle, proud men. Over and over, the play’s women play victim to male (or at least authority-based) idiocy; the results are sure to leave you fuming, but also newly appreciative of that Shakespeare fellow’s wisdom.

There’s a lot to this play, but the bit that concerns us here is this: When Claudio (Jack Cutmore-Scott) is tricked into believing that his fiancé Hero (Ismenia Mendes) has been unfaithful, he abruptly jilts her at the altar. It’s an absurdly extreme reversal: Soaring professions of love are replaced by fits of sharp-tongued barbs that traumatize Hero so seriously she almost dies.

You can feel the audience’s loathing toward Claudio in this charged moment. Why is he so quick to believe the worst about someone he claims to love? Why does he not ask for her side of the story? Why does he act so swiftly, without any room for question? (Hero’s father behaves similarly, slandering her without pause as she weeps.)

Then again, is such flip-flopping to be unexpected, considering the haste with which Claudio corralled Hero into engagement? After all, few were the words exchanged between them before Hero’s father presented her, trophy-like, to Claudio.

Thankfully, the truth does eventually out: Hero’s name is cleared and, true to form, Claudio and the father promply revert back to adoration. All’s well that ends well, right?

Of course not!

Shakespeare seems to be saying that love can only be partly successful in a world where half the population is refused agency. True, Claudio loves Hero by the end of the play, but what’s to happen the next time she’s accused wrongly? The next time he flies off the handle?

The play also suggests that men suffer from such an imbalance, too; that they are less than they could be, and behave worse in a world where women are either saints or whores, where the sexes sit on an unbalanced and unchanging seesaw of power.

All this from a play usually praised for its romance, wit and laughter.

Yes, the romance, wit and laughter are there, but the play is bigger and better than just that. By incorporating streaks of darkness, it becomes profound, moving and relevant.

It becomes, well, true.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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Best of 2012!

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Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

Five Reasons Shakespeare in the Park is NOT like the DMV


Ok, ok sure—they look similar at first glance. At both, you wait for hours and hours, uncomfortable, and emerge with a little piece of paper for reward. But no, I insist, NO! Waiting at Shakespeare in the Park is not like waiting at the DMV!

For proof, I’ve gathered five pieces of evidence at recent visits to both Esteemed New York Locales.

SITP and the DMV differ in…

1. The quality of fellow line-waiters.
At the DMV, everyone burrows into AngryBirds and trades scowls. SITP, conversely, produces an endlessly interesting supply of theater-lovers there to remind you that even though it’s 5AM and rainy, it’s not too early to debate the merits of Barbara Walsh’s “Ladies Who Lunch.”

2. The setting.
Um, so which do you prefer? A beautiful, bucolic urban paradise, or a windowless maze of nylon cords, blinking LEDs, and Helvetica? Well?

3. The drama.
This one’s a little less clear, I’ll give you. SITP enjoys clear, obvious action: Murder! Incest! Straight-toning! But while the drama of the DMV doesn’t project to the back row in quite the same fashion, it can be just as compelling: Watch, as that woman quietly dissolves into a puddle of impatience. Watch, as that aspiring rapper Def Poetry Jams to himself for two hours. Watch, as the girl reaches the front of the line and learns that her Social Security Card only counts as two points of identification, not three. Oh, the tragedy!!!

4. The quality of the line monitors.
Eric, the amazing SITP shepherd, infuses an appropriate sense of occasion and intensity when he warns patrons with omens like “this line is gonna get long and it’s gonna get long fast.” That sad man at the DMV? Well, he just looks confused.

5. The price.
I may have dropped out of AP Calculus, but I do think that $60.75 is more expensive than “free.” Enjoy that cash, DMV… ENJOY IT.

“Drama” excepted, I rest my case.

So there.

Cinderella of the Pacific Crest Trail


At the behest of Oprah, I recently read the new, bestselling memoir Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Wild tracks the author on an eleven-hundred-mile backpacking grunt across the Pacific Crest Trail in California, where her emotional demons are purged through the exorcism that is long-distance hiking.

Strayed’s dependent-yet-hate-filled relationship with her boots (they hurt like hell) is one of the book’s highlights, and when she loses half the crucial pair off a mountainside cliff, it’s almost too much for her (and readers!) to bear. “I let out a stunned gasp,” she writes. “My boot was gone. Actually gone.” This poor woman!, you think, reading. Hasn’t she suffered enough?

It’s a great part of the story, but not only does it make for good reading, it elevates Wild to the level of fairy tale. Indeed, watching the Public Theater’s outdoor production of Into the Woods, the Sondheim/Lapine fairy tale mashup of a musical, Wild came to me in a medium-transcending thunderclap.

Strayed, I instantly realized, is a latter day Cinderella.

Hobbling along the pathway to a better life, both she and Cinderella lead lives of despair and pain; both she and Cinderella are utterly alone; both she and Cinderella face a climactic moment of “one-shoedeness.” 

Indeed, Strayed’s description of herself might as well be a summation of Cinderella: “I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.”

Fortunately, Strayed manages to moor herself by the end of the book, as does the Cinderella of Into the Woods. Both go to the mountaintop, learn big, soulful lessons, and emerge equipped to re-enter real life. Whether it’s in the bipolar range between personal loss and shocking natural beauty (Strayed), or in that same expanse between endless housework and princess living (Cinderella), each realizes that equilibrium lives somewhere towards the middle.

As Cinderella sings to her prince, “My father’s house was a nightmare/ Your house was a dream/ Now I want something in between.” The highs and lows make for good storytelling, but living, breathing people need to split the difference.

As for me—and probably you?—I’m tempted by those extremes… tempted, just as long as I don’t have to put on those boots.

But Strayed and Cinderella shoved on their boots and slippers, no messing around.

And perhaps that’s their biggest shared trait of all:

Gumption.

photo by Joan Marcus

_______________________
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf, 336pp

Into the Woods, Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
at the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park
directed by Timothy Sheader, Co-Directed by Liam Steel

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.

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