Much Ado About a Whole Lotta Stuff
For a play that’s called “Much Ado About Nothing,” it’s sure done mucho times leading me to wish that just once they’d call it “Much Ado About a Whole Lotta Stuff.”
Director Ethan McSweeney’s production, which swings to the mambo and samba rhythm of 1930s Cuba, is the latest in a long line of “Much Ados” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company alone, where I’ve seen at least three versions as well as two at the Folger, plus an impeccable Royal Shakespeare production with Derek Jacoby in the 1980s and the Kenneth-Branagh-Emma Thompson and a whole bunch of movie stars cinematic version. And that’s just me.
Tell you what. I don’t mind. McSweeney’s spiced-up production at Harman Hall may take you to Cuba and even roll out a droll version of “Guantanamera” when you never expect it, but it does something much richer than that. Dense, sprawling, entertaining as all get out, it reminds you of why we return to Shakespeare as if he were the mother load of our own experience.
McSweeney may be taking liberties in concepts and setting, but what the hey nonny nonny, that’s what Shakespeare’s for, because every play of Shakespeare’s comes with a glazed invitation to directors that reads: “Hey, take your best shot. Please.”
McSweeney has a track record when working with classics from the Greeks, to Shaw to Shakespeare, to be bold but also taking care to get to the heart and core of the material. With “Much Ado About Nothing,” the centerpieces are the bright, bickering, bitching, brawling Benedick and Beatrice, the sworn enemies of love, romance and marriage, who are of course so well matched that it takes three hours for them to realize it.
That’s because Shakespeare doesn’t make things easy for his characters, couples and heroes, including a girl named Hero in this one. His comedies, romantic or just plain silly, are exercises in the art of the well-made play—they’re full of sub-plots, side-trips and sidekicks, and digressions, some dark doings and low humor, which may exist only to elicit a belly laugh for the groundlings
So we are in 1930s Cuba, which has soldiers and dukes dressed up in the uniforms of Batista’s armies but still heading towards Messina, not Havana. Although the music is hot, hot, hot at times and the dancing is furious, it’s still the same old story. The victorious Count Pedro, along with his brother the dark prince Don John, his cynical, brave and witty captain Benedick, and the heroic young bravo Claudio comes to the house of old friend Leonardo to celebrate. Here reside Leonardo’s sweet and prized daughter, Hero, and the acid tongued and beautiful Beatrice. Benedick and Beatrice commence to do battle, Claudio is smitten madly with Hero to the point where they will be married shortly, there’s a gala party, there’s Don John planning to undo the happiness of anybody that’s happy by slandering Hero, and the friends of Benedick and Beatrice launch a campaign which will have them believing that each loves the other.
And then there’s the constable, Dogberry, but have patience, prithee.
Any production of this play rides on its Beatrice and Benedick. With Derek Smith – caustic, prone to panic within a yard of romantic sentiment, quick and nimble verbally and on and off his feet – and the brazen, sharp, fetching Kathryn Meisle, the race is swift, smart and funny. The two bounce pungent aphorisms, biting retorts and tart bullets at each other. Double kudos for the red-headed Meisle who came late to the production.
And they’re really funny. Because at least two—there are others—of the great comic moments in the production have nothing to do with verbal acrobatics. They require Benedick and then Beatrice to remain hidden while they overhear their friends describe them as in love with each other, their friends being fully aware of their presence. Smith crawls like a crab, runs like a burglar and shrinks to the size of a penny while Beatrice, working her way like a clumsy eel around the garden and the fountain in the end, with no other resource, nearly drowns herself.
This is sheer, silent movie slapstick, physical humor done with great inelegance, exposing the actors as the best sorts of comic thespians, the kind that could stand naked in a crowd while pretending to be splendidly dressed.
No matter where you set “Much Ado”—in a Mafia restaurant, in Cuba, on an ocean liner—the false slander of Hero—appealingly played by Kate Hurster—has always been a dark bone in a light play, it exposes the quick-to-believe Claudio as a callow, unworthy youth, Don Pedro as a powerful aristocrat too prone to meddle in the lives of others, and so forth. But you would be a fool to think that things don’t sort themselves out to a happy ending. This is not “Hamlet,” after all.
Enter Dogberry. Enter Verges. Enter Ted van Griethuysen. Enter Floyd King. Enter two Washington stage treasures.
In Shakespeare’s time, the two would no doubt have played Romeo and Juliet, Claudio and Hero, Benedick and Beatrice. As it is the two have had their way with kings and Falstaff and Malvolio and others for several decades. They look for all the world like Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel, if they did Shakespeare.
Here they are the town constable Dogberry, a walking and malapropism, and his assistant Verges. Doddering, slow, hidebound and authentic as ballast on a ship of state, the two are practically tied at the hip, lest they break it.
Dogberry is one of those ridiculous officials whose sole authority is the passion with which he believes every wrong thing he says. He insists on it, as a point of fact. And what van Griethuysen does with this part—often overplayed—is make Dogberry human. He is a close cousin to Falstaff, and his charge to his militia to keep the peace by pretending not to hear the noise of chaos, sound in a ridiculous but believable way like Falstaff’s protestations about honor on a battlefield.
McSweeney has put together a production of “Much Ado” that is surely for people who might not care for Shakespeare but are eager to be entertained. But maybe even better, he’s staged a production, helped by dazzling sets and marvelous actors, a Shakespeare play that’s for those who really love a Shakespeare play.
“Much Ado About Nothing” runs through Jan. 3rd