Inviting, Sunny Setting for Somber Much Ado About Nothing
Although I am an audience veteran of any number of productions of Much Ado About Nothing dating back as far as at least 1973, I was somewhat taken aback upon reading the above on a lobby wall display at the Two River Theatre. Yes, I knew that there is a cruel subplot which causes this play to be considered one of Shakespeare's "problem" comedies. After all, isn't it most assuredly a sunny comedy which focuses on the delightfully funny and fractious bon mot-filled courtship of that cynical bachelor Lord Benedict and the crisp and equally sharp tongued Beatrice, the Governor's orphaned niece? And, who could ever forget the hilarious scenes wherein their friends farcically contrive to convince each that the other has confessed to being desperately in love with him/her?
Oh, yes, an impediment to Beatrice and Benedict's romance involves that problematic subplot anent Governor Leonato's nubile daughter, Hero, and her suitor, the young Lord Claudio. Herein, the jealous and cruel Don John, bastard brother of the Prince Don Pedro, hatches a plan to convince Leonato and Don Pedro that Hero is a whore. Don John has them observe Hero's attendant Margaret stand in for Hero at her bedroom window while his follower Borachio speaks carnally to her from below. Convinced of Hero's promiscuity, Claudio, with vile cruelty, condemns her in front of everyone as their wedding ceremony is about to begin. There is much more to be played out before this matter is happily resolved, including Benedick's challenging Leonato to a duel to prove his devotion to Beatrice. Surely a subplot, this impediment to the looming happily ever after resolution to the romantic comedy. No?
Heretofore, all the productions of Much Ado that I have seen have downplayed the junior lovers' problematic contretemps, and allowed audiences to concentrate on the delightful and seemingly central principal element of the play, namely, the courtship of Beatrice and Benedict. Still, at least temporarily, audiences have to be painfully aware of the cruelty on display. I also assume that most viewers have, like myself, been happy to be complicit with these productions by concentrating our memories of the play on our delight at the antics of Beatrice and Benedick, their farcically helpful compaginates, and the delightfully comic constable Dogberry. Well, director Sam Buntrock clearly has decided that he will have no truck with such willful blindness, and he has made certain that viewers of his production will not soon deceive themselves about the dark cruelty afoot in sunny Italy.
Although memory can be wildly inaccurate, it seems to me that previous productions of Much Ado devoted more of their time to the repartee of Beatrice and Benedick and less to the villainous plotting of Don Pedro and Borachio than is the case here. At first glance, Buntrock seems to make a pretty good case for the relegation of the less weighty matters of Beatrice and Benedick to supporting roles. However, approaching Much Ado as a "problem" comedy centered on Beatrice and Benedick provides more pleasure than approaching it as the almost tragic drama of Hero and Leonato with comic relief. I do not remember having thought before now of Much Ado being a close cousin to Romeo and Juliet and Othello
Director Buntrock's view of the play has led him to tone down the level of exuberance and farcicality usually seen in productions of Much Ado. The comedy is still amusing, but it never is allowed to broadly expand into joyful hilarity. This is all the more disappointing, given the visual exuberance of the bright, entrancing and expansive set. It beautifully encompasses the rear wall of Leonato's large white stucco Italian palazzo with ornate, open-shuttered windows and a series of wide archways covered by an extended second story as well as a large terrace and garden. There is a piano under an arch, and two marble benches, a wooden table with four chairs, two rattan chairs, three potted orange trees and additional plants and stuff in the terrace and garden areas. An early record playing phonograph suggests that this Much Ado has been reset in the late 19th century. A wise decision (paralleling A.J. Antoon's for the voluptuous 1973 New York Shakespeare Festival production which was set in an American town at the end of the Spanish-American War), as it enables a lovely set (designed by Tony Straiges) and richly appealing costumes (Mattie Ullrich), neither of which is fussily ornate nor jarringly modern. It is brightly sunlit during daylight hours, and almost as brightly lit at night under a pleasingly colorful panoply of lanterns.
Upon reflection, a possibly fatal flaw to any attempt to shift the emphasis of Much Ado to Hero and Claudio is that the role of Hero is relatively short, and her palpably simplistic weakness pales in comparison to the quick-witted and passionate Beatrice. Particularly in light of the emphasis placed upon them in this Much Ado, the roles of Claudio and Hero are decidedly under cast. Aaron Clifton Moten is a smooth young actor who delivers his lines with apt precision. However, as yet, Moten lacks the heft and authority for him to be charismatic and convincing as the vengeful Claudio. Annapurna Sriram provides a charming presence, but has not found the key (if there is one) to making Hero interesting.
On the other hand, Two River has had the good fortune to land Kathryn Meisle and Michael Cumpsty for the roles of Beatrice and Benedick. Now it is not unusual for seasoned, major theatre actors to lend crucial support to newcomers in starring roles. However, in this play and in this production, Meisle and Cumpsty are the stars, and we are grateful for their presence. Meisle's Beatrice is particularly delightful. Meisle effortlessly delivers a richly integrated and delightfully crisp performance. She projects a cool intelligence in both her mischievous delight in her verbal jousts with Benedick, and her fierce efforts to support her mistreated cousin Hero. Noooo!... you can't take her home with you. Michael Cumpsty's Benedick is most entertaining as his smug chauvinism is embarrassingly undermined by his increasing affection for Beatrice.
Under the unobtrusive directorial hand of Sam Buntrock, the entire ensemble is comfortably at home in the Sicilian countryside. Tom Bloom is a perfectly to the palazzo born Leonato, who, jolted from his comfort zone, is too quick to believe the accusations against his daughter. Zeke Zaccaro is sweetly avuncular as his brother, Antonio. Steven Skybell (Don Pedro), Sean Dugan (Don John), Christopher Hirsh (Borachio), Connor Carew (Friar Francis) and John Ahlin (Dogberry) make solid contributions in important roles.
This innovative Much Ado About Nothing serves as an auspicious beginning to the first Two River Theatre season programmed by its new Artistic Director, John Dias. Dias has scheduled an ambitious and eclectic season and attracted major theatrical artists to create it.
It is undeniable that Sam Buntrock is a talented, thoughtful and committed director. While his interpretation of Much Ado About Nothing strikes me as too subdued and solemn, it is skillfully directed, intelligent and original, and worth your time and attention.
Much Ado About Nothing continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 pm; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees.: Wednesday 1 pm; Saturday and Sunday 3pm/ Student Performances: Thurs. 10 AM) through October 2, 2011 at the Two River Theatre Company, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare; directed by Sam Buntrock