Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
I had hoped to be making much ado about Bakerloo once again, but I am sad to report that their production of Much Ado About Nothing focuses more on the nothing. In fact, director Ryan Howe has too much a-doing on the stage, without the cohesive vision that usually marks Bakerloo’s productions. Frankly, I have seen high school productions of Shakespeare with more energy and vision.
For some reason that never did become clear to me, Howe and set designer Tommy Costello have set the production in a thrift shop. There are piles of props and racks of costumes, and one little bit of blue drapery up left behind which people hide from time to time. People hide a lot in this play and it works a lot better when they hide behind furniture or costume bits than when a whole pile of them squeeze behind one little blue curtain. I suspect they were supposed to be in the thrift shop’s dressing room. From the piles and racks actors occasionally pick up props or costume pieces, or use them for concealment, but more often these objects just sit there, getting in the way.
Costume designer Brittany Andrews and her assistant Maude Behrens have most of the cast (but not all) in basic black, over which other costume pieces are layered. Some of those pieces are odd choices, or have seen better days. Some actors, like the always stylish Sarah Murphy, know how to dress up an ensemble, while others just look ratty. Black is actually a difficult color to match since it inevitably fades with washing and wearing.
Howe gives us some quotes in the program about fashion and clothing, but he fails to explain how he believes they relate to Much Ado About Nothing. It is not a play of mistaken identity or one in which vanity plays a major role.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am the Queen of Tag Sales (an inherited title since my father was the King of Thrift Shops.) Give me $200 and a general idea of color palette and period and I could costume a Shakespearean comedy from the Goodwill. I am all for doing more with less, reusing and recycling, etc. I love theatrical effects cleverly made or improvised from second-hand and hand-made goods. But the operative word here is clever. And Bakerloo is usually so very clever in presenting dazzling productions on a shoestring and this season’s Hamlet: What Dreams May Come? is a superb example of their artistry. What went wrong here?
I am a big fan of Much Ado..., although it is sadly produced less often than As You Like It or Twelfth Night, which rival it for wit, or The Comedy of Errors or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which over-match it for silliness (no fairies or double sets of identical twins here). And I think I finally saw, watching Howe’s production, what is wrong with Much Ado... You basically have two parallel plays going on – the delightful bickering romance of Beatrice and Benedick, and the sappy predictable love story of Hero and Claudio. Unfortunately Shakespeare devotes most of the plot and characters’ energies to the latter affair, leaving B&B to drift around the edges of the action.
Marsha Harman and Parag S. Gohel are both fine actors, but they do feel like they dropped in out of some parallel universe, some other stage where their full story is being told. Why are they costumed so very differently from the rest of the cast? Harman looks lovely, but her costume – a purple pencil skirt, black satin cami top, hose and heels – restricts her movement. She looks like she came to the theatre directly from her 21st century corporate job and didn’t have time to change. Everyone else is in thrift shop motley and Beatrice looks like an ad for Bloomindales.
In contrast, Benedick’s costume is very Annie Hall, and it works. I loved the pork pie hat, which Beatrice appropriates at the end. Here the costume really established the character and helped make Gohel, a Bakerloo newcomer, instantly likable.
“When constabulary duty’s to be done,
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.”
- W. S. Gilbert
The other really interesting character in Much Ado... is Constable Dogberry and his Keystone Cops. Apparently the constabulary have always been the butt of jokes, and both Shakespeare and Howe make every effort to make buffoons of Messina’s finest. While Abigail Fudor’s Dogberry grew on me, I did not like her in her early scenes in spite of her zippy entrances and exits on a motorized Razor scooter. Without the hilarious support of McGranaghan as her dutiful assistant Verges, I am not sure I would ever have cottoned to Fudor’s performance. Again, her costume did not help. While I understood instantly that McGranaghan, in his wobbly motorcycle helmet, and Junker and Murphy (as the world’s oldest deputy) in their ragged fatigues were officers, Fudor was just a short chick in khaki shorts and black socks.
May I just say what a snooze Hero and Claudio are? This is entirely Shakespeare’s fault. I have never seen a production of this play in which I didn’t find them both monumentally boring, no matter how good the actors. Here Lily Junker is every inch the blushing virgin, which is all that is required of her, but Mack Exilus never allows himself to plumb the depths of Claudio’s devotion to Hero.
Everyone else, and there are five more cast members, are just assistants to Hero and Claudio, and on occasion of Beatrice and Benedick, but mostly and tediously of Hero and Claudio. There is the requisite villain, Don John (Adam Thomas Smith), the Good Don Pedro’s (Charlie Brown) bastard brother, (a fact Shakespeare reiterates at his every entrance in the script) without whom there would be no plot at all.
But in the end Don John simply skips town and vanishes – Shakespeare doesn’t even grant us the satisfaction of seeing him get his just deserts, or at least the fun of slipping out of Dogberry’s inept clutches just before the headsman’s axe swings down. Melissa Rynn Porterfield and Aaron Jefferson Tindall play Don John’s slimy henchmen, Exilus doubles as the Sexton, and Fudor doubles as Friar Francis, here conceived as a slightly stoned hippie-dippie preacher.
Director Howe also plays Hero’s father Leonato, Governor of Messina, without the slightest signs of age, although the script retains his lines about grey hair and years of wisdom. Even if you are not going to slap on a grey wig or use a little spray-in grey, Howe could at least have moved with less ease. (We old folks get creaky, you know!) Instead he demonstrates early on that Leonato is a guy with his very own proprietary dance moves, which he mysteriously fails to reprise in any later scenes. Either the man is a dancing fool, or he’s not. Make up your mind.
There is a big dance number in Act II, scene I, during Shakespeare’s masked ball. It is an hilarious combination of every embarrassing late 20th century dance craze – the Macarena, the Hustle, the Chicken Dance, with a heaping dish of Disco on the side. It was well choreographed and fun to watch, but I lost much of the dialogue that took place during it.
Likewise Howe gives Balthasar’s song in Act II, scene iii to Beatrice, who sings it right beside the bleachers where the audience sits while another scene is enacted on the central playing area. I happened to be sitting at the end of the row and so Harman was singing literally inches away from me. She was behind the people in the front row, too close to me and my comrades in the second and third rows, and probably too far from the folks on the other side of the house. In every way it was poor blocking, the sound balance was off, and the audience was prevented from enjoying either Harman’s pleasant singing or whatever the heck was happening on stage.
This will not go down in history as one of Bakerloo’s big hits, but the performance I attended was packed and the audience gave the cast two curtain calls. The company states its mission as the desire to present “high-quality, low-cost, innovative theatre that shuns pretense so that a new generation of audiences will see theatre as a dynamic, accessible and inclusive experience.” In this 2009 season they have achieved all of that and more with Hamlet: What Dreams May Come and provided a second accessible and inclusive audience experience with this production. At ten years old they are finding their audience and making their mark. I wonder what 2010 will bring?
The Bakerloo Theatre Project's production of Much Ado About Nothing will be performed July 24, 25, 26 & 29 and August 1 at 7 p.m. at Academy Hall at the corner of 15th Street and College Avenue on the RPI campus in Troy, NY. There will be a Pay-What-You-Can Community Performance July 29 at 7 p.m. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for all ages. Tickets are $16 each. Click to find out about the special discount for GailSez readers! Visit www.bakerloo.org for information about discount tickets and group rates.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009