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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Much Ado About Nothing
A Dream of Christmas Back Home in the USA Circa 1944

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey


Marion Adler and Scott Wentworth
The 1972 New York Shakespeare Festival (in Central Park and on Broadway) production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing set this problematic romantic comedy at the end of the Spanish-American War around the turn of the twentieth century. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has gone quite a bit further by setting its current production in 1940s wartime America and adding the accouterments of an American Christmas (Christmas trees, and bells, red and green ribbons, wreaths, mistletoe, Santa hats and beards (wore at the masked party), and recordings of American big band era arrangements of holiday music).

Additionally, the play is turned into a late December night's dream by bracketing opening and closing scenes set in an Army base. As the play begins, a seated soldier (Benedick), while peeling potatoes and listening to a big band recording of Jingle Bells emanating from a large floor-standing box radio, dozes off into dreamland. The updated, native, and seasonal holiday setting yields largely felicitous results.

Beatrice and Benedick, the reluctant lovers who are Much Ado's central characters, are written to be played as relatively young (Shakespeare describes Benedick as a "young lord" and the orphaned Beatrice has been raised by Leonato as sister to his daughter Hero), and are portrayed here by director Scott Wentworth and his real life wife Marion Adler, both of whom are well into middle age. Although in the text there is clearly a considerable element of passion in their evolving relationship, what is conveyed in performance by these players is a sense of accommodation to the comfort that having a life's companion and partner will bring. This non-traditional casting, together with Wentworth's interpretation of Benedick, changes the nature of their battle of the sexes and what could be described as their joint defeat.

Scott Wentworth has directed his cast to impart American accents and speech patterns as well as informal and confident body language, providing a big plus in the production's enjoyment. Wentworth's performance best embodies his directorial approach. Furthermore, his extended curmudgeonly attitude is valid and entertaining. Marion Adler performs brightly and her line readings are impeccable. However, the casting of Adler just doesn't work for me. Beatrice's combination of anger and coquettishness plays as inappropriate in a mature woman. Intellectually, it strikes me as unfair to be amused by an older Benedick while being dismayed by an older Beatrice, but whether it is the play, the performances, and/or some level of misogyny, this is what I experienced.

The secondary romance which makes Much Ado About Nothing problematic is between Claudio (Benedick's best friend) and Hero. Falsely convinced by rogues that Hero has slept with another man on the night before her wedding, Claudio seeks to destroy and disgrace her with hateful viciousness. While this event provides the opportunity for Beatrice and Benedick to shine and enhance their relationship, it is too painfully dark for a romantic comedy, but director Wentworth blunts the trauma by quickly rushing through it.

As we have come to expect from Shakespeare Theatre's fine company, the cast is strong throughout. Raphael Nash Thompson convincingly conveys the pain that underlies Leonato's response to Hero's shaming. Mostly, Thompson is a tower of benign strength. John Hickok hits just the right note bridging the authority and good fellowship of Don Pedro. Michael Stewart Allen (Don John) is a sufficiently broad villain. Jeffrey M. Bender provides the leavening humor needed in that dark area of the play as the dogged and foolish constable, Dogberry.

Candida Nichols has designed most attractive, era-defining outfits for the female actors, and appropriate military uniforms for most of the males. Scenic designer Michael Ganio has filled the stage with a plethora of eye-pleasing stage properties. Unfortunately, the unit set which relies heavily on three upstage curtains is inadequate to the needs of the production. I wish to tread lightly here as The Shakespeare Theatre works wonders with the unit sets which are the norm for most productions of Shakespeare today. However, in order to transport us back to the future, this resetting of Much Ado About Nothing cries out for a realistic, detailed set of the 1940s home and grounds of Leonato where it mostly is set.

Still, in all, Much Ado About Nothing is one of the Bard's most enjoyable and accessible comedies. Presented with an updated setting, fine performances, a swift pace, and the warming spirit of the Christmas season, it is winning entertainment for the entire family.

Much Ado About Nothing continues performances (Evening: Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Mats: Saturday & Sunday 2 pm - No Performances 12/24 & 12/25) through December 28, 2014, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare; directed by Scott Wentworth

Cast
Leonato……………………….Raphael Nash Thompson
Beatrice………………………………………Marion Adler
Hero……………………………………………Susan Maris
Margaret………………………………………..Rachel Fox
Ursula………………………………………Victoria Nassif
Balthasar…………………………………James Costello
Don Pedro…………………………………...John Hickok
Benedick...…………………………….Scott Wentworth
Claudio……………………………….Charles Pasternak
Don John…………………………Michael Stewart Allen
Borachio……………………………………..Austin Blunk
Conrad……………………………………Travis Johnson
Dogberry……………………………..Jeffrey M. Bender
Verges…………………………………...Conan McCarty
Father Francis…………………………..Andy Paterson
Sexton/ Nun………………………….Christine Sanders
Watch..James Costello, Rachel Fox, Victoria Nassif


- Bob Rendell



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