“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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Richard III and Dem Bones

Britain Richard IIINow is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this hump of torque: Scholars at the University of Leicester have confirmed the above skeleton as that of Shakespeare’s most twisted, twisting villain, Richard III. (Check out the deformed spine! Kevin Spacey and the rest got it right!)

The body’s been missing since its hasty burial, but has finally been located, 500 years after the fact, under a parking lot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already planning a trip to the grave, where I’ll kneel and whisper sweet nothings like, “Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,” and “Foul devil, for God’s sake hence and trouble us not!”

P1-BJ998_Richar_G_20130118173846

photos courtesy of the University of Leicester

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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.

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

Report from the Capital

Hear ye, hear ye! I come with word from the mainland!

London, that is. New York might flatter itself the center of the universe, but it’s the British First City that can lay true claim to that most exclusive of titles: Play Capitol.

A certain kind of play, that is – one that’s smart, sharp, political, thorough, current, historical (or at least aspires to be), and comes served in plummy, accented tones which cover all manner of sins.

The most exciting, anglophilia-inducing entrée of my recent trip to England was “London Road,” a new, verbatim musical playing the National’s Cottesloe Theatre. Its subject – the murder of five prostitutes – is conventional enough stuff (!), but it’s the telling of this tale that elicits those wonderful shivers signifying the arrival of the New.

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