Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Much Ado About Nothing is Something to See
A clear, straightforward, largely traditional production of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is currently providing pleasure for audiences at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, in Madison.
Retaining the Bard's original location in Messina, Sicily (although the period has been moved up to the 1700s without visible effect beyond costuming, and, most likely, choreography), this romantic comedy concerns the more stubborn than reluctant dueling soulmates Beatrice (Donna Bullock) and Benedick (Sherman Howard), and the cruel disruption of the impending marriage between their respective dear friends Hero (Ali Marsh) and Claudio (Curtis Mark Williams).
Mr. Howard emphasizes the empty headed silliness of Benedick's thought processes. He is especially entertaining, drawing a great deal of humor from the role. He and Bullock (his real life spouse) play well together. However, as broadly interpreted here, Benedick is not really a romantic character. Mr. Howard is also rather mature looking for Benedick.
Curtis Mark Williams is a credible Claudio until his dramatic break with fiancée Hero. Here, his performance lacks control and strength. Ali Marsh is a solid Hero, and her performance gains strength during her scene of crisis.
Much Ado is blessed with a great number of rich character roles. Particularly excellent are Robert Lanchester as Leonato, Hero's father, and Eric Hoffmann as comic constable Dogberry. Lanchester's line readings are fluid, and we feel humanity and warmth in him. This could make his harsh reaction to the misconduct of which Hero is accused hard to accept, but the ease with which he shifts attitude convinces us that he could well contain both aspects within his persona. Hoffmann's supple facial expressions and well timed, clear line readings make his appropriately broad, crowd pleasing Dogberry a treat.
The balance of the ensemble is largely well up to the task at hand. James Wolk has designed an adequate, playable set with moveable trees and gazebo representing outdoor locations, and a tapestry drop for indoor rooms. Lights are dropped from the stage and auditorium ceiling to enhance the rather unevocative ballroom scene.
Frank Champa's costumes are attractive and very playable, apt for the Sicilian climate, and can be assumed to be appropriate to the 1700s. The brief choreographic contributions of Leah Kreutzer are helpful.
Director Bonnie J. Monte gives us a clear, smooth, heavily underlined production emphasizing the play's rich humor (although I feel that the jealous, ungrateful villain Don John's line, "I thank you; I am not of many words, but I thank you," should foreshadow danger rather than be played for laughter). To Monte's great credit, the clarity and smoothness of her direction extends to the extreme transition in mood which is inherent in this play. By placing her leads one step down in front of the main stage area at times, she creates the cinematic effect of having them appear to be in sharp foreground focus.
Much Ado About Nothing is often described as one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays because it is a rather rowdy comedy with a truly vicious and cruel dirty deed thrown into its mechanism with nary the blink of an eye. However, Much Ado has always been popular with audiences (recall the enormously successful 1993 Kenneth Branagh film adaptation). More than ever, today's audiences have become acclimated to quick shifts in mood. In fact, cruelty is an integral part of today's humor, although that is not the case here.
The plot is clear and easy to follow. The light romance is a delight. The likeable characters engage our sympathies. The melodramatic conflict is stirring. And there is a full palette of humor bon mots, puns, slapstick - all arising from character. Thus, Much Ado offers a terrific opportunity for parents to introduce their children (pretty much of all ages) to the wonderful world of Shakespeare.
Much Ado is the inaugural production of the 2003 season at the newly renamed Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (née New Jersey Shakespeare Festival). Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte professes to be excited by the name change and describes the reason in a program note about the transformation of the company and public perception. Frankly, I don't get it. It is my guess that the same P.R. firm that convinced the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse to change its name to "Paper Mill - The State Theatre of New Jersey" had a hand in this. If I am correct, perhaps we can look forward to "McCarter the Northeastern Center for Theatre Art" and ... enough, you get my drift.
Much Ado About Nothing, presented through June 15 at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Drew University Campus Rte. 124 at Lancaster Road, Madison, N.J. Evenings: Tues. Sat. 8 PM / Sun. 7P.M. ; Matinees: Sat. Sun. 2 P.M. Tickets online at www.shakespearenj.org or by telephone at 973-408-5700
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Directed by Bonnie J. Monte. Cast (in order of appearance): Robert Lanchester (Leonato); Jonathan Brathwaite (Messenger; Friar Francis); Donna Bullock (Beatrice); Ali Marsh (Hero); Paul Niebanck (Don Pedro); Sherman Howard (Benedick); Edmond Genest (Don John); Curtis Mark Williams (Claudio); Larry Swansen (Antonio; Verges); Len Childers (Conrade); David Foubert (Borachio); Michael X. Izquierdo (Balthasar; Sexton); Victoria Mack (Margaret); Erin Lynlee Partin (Ursula); Hannah Sherman (Girl); James Earley (Watchman) ; William De Meritt (George Seacoal).