Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2003.
I had a wonderful time at the opening night of Much Ado About Nothing. So did everyone else in attendance. I want to say this right up front because, being a critic, I am going to spend some time in this review criticizing things, and I want to make it clear that I am doing that because it is my job and not because these problems ultimately detracted from a fun evening of theatre.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s later comedies and has elements of darkness in among the light-hearted entertainment. Scenic designer Cameron Anderson and lighting designer Matthew E. Adelson have done an excellent job of creating a brilliantly lit setting with lurking shadows in the newly arranged Founders’ Theatre. Shakespeare set his play in Sicily, and so has director Daniela Varon, only she has placed the action in Sicily in the 1950’s. This works well because the crux of the plot hinges on the high value placed by family and suitors on a woman’s pre-marital virginity and it is a believable time and place for that to still be a life-and-death matter.
Varon has made excellent use of music of the period and of the region. A live singer, Daniel J. Sherman, and classical guitarist Nathan Wolfe Coleman, perform several numbers as a part of the show, and other music is heard “on the radio.” The music and the drop-dead gorgeous costumes by Jacqueline Firkins set the time, place, and tone of the show beautifully.
This play has always been a favorite of mine because, although there is a young-love-at-first-sight storyline, the couple who gets the most stage time – Beatrice and Benedick – are crotchety middle-aged singletons with whom most of us can relate. These two characters seem to be wholly Shakespeare’s creation, as none of the source material shows hide nor hair of them. I like to think that Beatrice and Benedick sprang from Shakespeare’s head full-blown and he just had to find a formulaic plot in which to fit them.
Here Benedick is played a bit too broadly by an alarmingly brunet Allyn Burrows. How much of this leaping about is Burrows idea and how much comes from Varon I am not sure, but MY Benedick is more literary and less athletic. More high-minded and less of a buffoon.
But Burrows is nicely matched, nay almost overmatched, by Paula Langton’s Beatrice. She is what is known as a handsome woman – not a classic beauty but a distinctive creature whose attractiveness comes as much from within as from any exterior charms. It is completely plausible that she would have escaped an early marriage because younger men would have found the combination of a strong personality and an unconventional beauty to be confusing. Now, in middle-age, Beatrice has what the men want. Only she doesn’t want them.
In the young-love-at-first-sight department, Stephanie Dodd is all bright eyes and blushes as Hero. Alas, Mark Saturno is far less appealing as her suitor, Claudio. Since Saturno never really convinced me that Claudio loved Hero, her perfidy when he is led to believe she is “damaged goods” was not too interesting either. Claudio should embody the “heat, passion, and volcanic eruptions” of Sicily which Varon mentions in her program notes. Saturno struck me as just kind of whiny.
Jonathan Croy is just splendid as Don Pedro. Thank goodness he was there to provide the passion Saturno lacked. Since Claudio and Don Pedro act in concert to woo, win, and then shame Hero, Croy was able to amplify the meager signals Saturno was putting out.
Another stand out in a small role is Elizabeth Aspenlieder as the maidservant Margaret. She creates a woman of lusty appetites but tremendous good will. Being of a lower class than Hero, Margaret’s virginity is of no value, but her personal honor and her loyalty to her employers’ means the world to her. Aspenlieder looks ridiculous pretty as a brunette, sporting a Betty Rubble flip with panache.
My big criticism, and this stems partly from the fact that I am blessed with the opportunity to see everything Shakespeare & Company mounts, is that Varon and the company trot out an awful lot of the overly athletic stunts to which the fantastically adaptable space at the Founders’ Theatre lends itself. It is very funny to see actors, literally, climb the walls. And I love it when they pop up and down out of the trap doors like a demented game of Whack-A-Mole. But do we have to do these tricks in every show? Perhaps there is a show, comedy, tragedy, history or romance, where popping up out of the floor just isn’t necessary, or where a laugh could be earned another way?
My second criticism is of Jonathan Epstein’s subtle-to-the-point-of-incomprehensible portrayal of Dogberry. And this criticism begins with complaining that Firkins has dressed Epstein as the wrong character from The Pirates of Penzance. I kept expecting him to start singing I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General when I should have been waiting for him to sing A Policeman’s Lot is Not a Happy One. Frankly, because of the muddled costume and the fact that Epstein spoke many lines in Italian when he first entered, I don’t think that I would have known who or what he was supposed to be if I was not familiar with the play. Just to set the record straight, Dogberry is a constable.
But I never got the feeling that Epstein was speaking to me. He seemed to be muttering off in a world of his own. I have a sneaking suspicion that this was an in-joke, and there is nothing worse a theatrical company can do than stage a comedy to amuse themselves and not let the audience in on the joke.
My final criticism is for the Bard himself. As I said earlier, I think Shakespeare wrote this play in order to have a vehicle for Beatrice and Benedick, these two fabulous characters who were rumbling around in his head. He doesn’t seem very much interested in the structure of the rest of the play, and, as a result, you have a villain with no motivation. Don John (Jason Asprey) just wanders around being mean and messing people’s lives up for no apparent reason. He gets very little stage time before he is sent to “sleep with the fishes,” and he just feels like a Deus Ex Machina to create a plot where otherwise there wouldn’t be one.
Beaucoup de bruit pour rien. That is French for Much Ado About Nothing. I learned that from a list of Shakespeare’s plays available in French that was on the back cover of a Moliere play that I had to read in high school. I was not very good at French and I have always been bored by Moliere in any language, but I was fascinated by the idea of Shakespeare in French, and especially charmed by the translation of the title of this play. The French word “bruit” translates most literally as “noise.” A whole lot of noise for nothing. That is about what theatre criticism boils down to.
This is an outstanding, entertaining, professional production of a Shakespearean play that is not performed nearly enough. I say go, take the family, and have a blast. It’s only summer for a little while.
Much Ado About Nothing runs through August 31 at the Founders' Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs three hours and a quarter, with one intermission. It is suitable for the whole family, but, if you bring children, be sure that they are able to sit still for such a long stretch. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003