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Regional Reviews: Boston

Much Ado About Nothing
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Review by Josh Garstka

Also see Josh's review of Cabaret and Nancy's review of Bright Star


Brooke Hardman and Omar Robinson
Photo by Nile Scott Shots
There is measure in everything. From the rapid-fire rhythm of the lovers' quarrels to the anachronistic mashup of Shakespearean verse with today's Top 40, the measure of music runs through the Actors' Shakespeare Project's Much Ado About Nothing with irrepressible joy. It would be hard to shake a smile or suppress your laughter during ASP's winning production of this timeless comedy.

Much Ado About Nothing is the first ASP show staged by Christopher V. Edwards, the company's new Artistic Director, and if the production is a sign of where the theater company is going, ASP is in good hands. Beyond the interpolated pop songs (more on those later), Edwards doesn't resort to modern gimmicks to make Much Ado accessible. Rather, his work with this nine-person cast energizes the text with a fast contemporary delivery that draws out the crystalline wit of Shakespeare's delicious repartee. The cast is clearly having as much fun with this verse as we are.

Out of this spirited group, our on-again, off-again lovers—Brooke Hardman as Beatrice and especially Omar Robinson as Benedick—lead the way in loosening up Shakespeare's verse and mining every laugh buried within. Beneath their comic antagonism, both actors convey their characters' apprehensions and uncertainties, their stubborn hearts as cautious as their defiant mouths are outspoken. Hardman plays up Beatrice's smarts and vulnerability; though she's no man's fool, we see how clearly she is besotted with Benedick. And Robinson gives a take-no-prisoners read on Benedick as a man bemused by his own sudden change of heart. This Benedick is infatuated with the sound of his own voice, yet why wouldn't he be? Robinson's comic instincts run a mile a minute, coaxing out humor in unexpected places, even drawing on audience response like a tennis partner ready to return their volley. There are two tour de force scenes back to back, in which Benedick and Beatrice eavesdrop on Don Pedro's plot to convince each that the other loves them. Both Robinson and Hardman master the exhausting physicality of the scenes, with Hardman even scurrying among (and sitting on top of) audience members, while their co-stars pitch their ruse to the rafters.

If the A couple of Benedick and Beatrice—equals in cleverness and tenderness—are as fresh as if they were written today, Claudio and Hero's arc is harder to adapt to present day. When Claudio abandons Lydia Barnett-Mulligan's Hero at the altar for her infidelity (which we know to be false), her father Leonato castigates his daughter for the shame she's brought him and invents a plot to convince the town she's dead. It's shocking to imagine, and in this production, even more surprising when Mark Soucy's congenial Leonato lashes out at Hero with sudden violence. How easily these characters are all deceived, from the innocent white lies that brought Benedick and Beatrice together, to this sinister turn for Hero and Claudio.

Perhaps looking for a modern way into the ugly gender dynamics of this scene, Edwards has cast Esme Allen as a female Claudio, with pronouns altered to match. There's no direct objection in the text, of course, to Claudio and Hero's same-sex betrothal. But Leonato lashing out at Hero in this context suggests a buried homophobia. And though Allen's Claudio's shaming of Hero isn't based on some outdated male-female dynamic, I wondered if she may be experiencing some internal self-loathing.

Thank goodness for Alejandro Simoes' Dogberry and his merry watch of misfits to lighten the mood. Simoes also plays the conniving Don John in a nicely sober reading that makes him more human than villain. But it's his street-stupid patrolman, whose malapropisms here are attributable to a thick Italian accent, where the actor proves his comedic mettle. (Barnett-Mulligan matches him as one of his perky if dim-witted sidekicks.) More than usual, Dogberry feels well integrated into the wackiness of the play, clad in sunglasses and a bike helmet like a "Reno 911" reject, making his entrance and exit on a hoverboard.

Now, you'll probably remember this Much Ado as the pop song production. A full-cast performance of Shakespeare's "Sigh no more" woven into Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop," led by Hardman, is playful in the best way. But to my taste, integrating Beyoncé songs for Beatrice and Claudio to showcase their despair just comes across as hokey. Frankly, Claudio, it's crass to sing "I live so I can die with you" over your dead fiancée's casket.

If ideas like this don't always stick, Edwards' anything-goes staging has many more surprises in store. Led by Robinson's sensational Benedick as he riffs through his verse like a jazz pianist, then confesses his love to Beatrice with trembling affection, this Much Ado About Nothing ascends to wild comic heights without forgetting the more disturbing aspects of Shakespeare's plot. But even as those darker memories linger, how can we help but enjoy the evening's giddy exhilaration and raise our hands to clap along?

Much Ado About Nothing, through May 6, 2018, for Actors' Shakespeare Project, at the Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St, Cambridge MA. Tickets are available at actorsshakespeareproject.org or by phone at 866-811-4111.

Cast: Esme Allen (Claudio); Avery Bargar (Don Pedro); Lydia Barnett-Mulligan (Hero); Abigail Dickson (Borachio); Brooke Hardman (Beatrice); Andrew Prensky (Garet/Verges); Omar Robinson (Benedick); Alejandro Simoes (Don John/Dogberry); Mark Soucy (Leonato).

Creative Team: Director: Christopher V. Edwards; Set Designer: Jon Savage; Lighting Designer: Deb Sullivan; Costume Designer: le Dineen; Movement Consultant: Jennifer Rohn; Music Direction & Arrangement: Brooke Hardman; Select Original Music & Arrangement: Avery Bargar; Production Stage Manager: Adele Nadine Traub; Production Manager: Deb Sullivan.


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