Get thee down to Penn Quarter’s Sidney Harman Hall to behold Shakespeare in the tropics, under the palms, smoldering in the Caribbean sun: it’s the one about the guy who secretly loves the girl who secretly loves him and the other guy who accuses the other girl of scandal on their wedding day and the despicable bad guy and the ludicrous creation named Dogberry.
Being one of the Bard’s comedy of errors, you can rest assured that much ado will in fact be about nothing, love’s labors will not be lost and all’s well that will end well, with all redeemable characters gathered ‘round for a valedictory celebration as you like it and any wicked rogues treated justly measure for measure. And this being a production of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, you can be sure that it will all look and sound spectacular.
Directed by local wunderkind Ethan McSweeny, Much Ado About Nothing has been lovingly restyled in a 1930s Cuban setting, maximizing the island’s zesty color palette, bouncy gusto and passionate music and dance.
Much Ado, one of the founts of Restoration comedies and the modern rom-com, is at its finest a showcase of the “merry war” between the sexes, a sporting display between the fancies of wooing and its repudiation through wit.
Beatrice and Benedick, the archetypal models for acid-wit adversaries turned inevitable sweethearts are fetchingly imbued by Kathryn Meisle and Derek Smith with an endearing spiritedness and exuberance.
Meisle is a treat as Beatrice, reminiscent of Lucille Ball, and not just for her reddish hair, but for her intelligent and warm comic instinct. She presents us with a cutting, snappy Beatrice, a fierce champion for women who bristle at the societal conventions assigned to their sex. She refuses to submit to marriage at the expense to her liberty for anyone less than the perfect partner. But she’s more big-hearted gal pal than broken-glass banshee, played as feminine and caring even as she hides from the chance of love behind her prodigious wit.
Meisle deserves special mention for prevailing as Beatrice, as she was a last-minute replacement for Veanne Cox little more than a week before opening night.
Smith’s Benedick is also suggestive of a star of yesteryear, the male lead from Hollywood’s golden age screwball comedies, boldly entertaining, brashly funny and clearly delivered. Smith, who recently appeared as Antonio in STC’s The Merchant of Venice, here delivers a wonderful performance, bursting with charm and bravado while his Benedick wills loneliness away by pretending to be happily content.
The dual back-to-back scenes when both are duped into believing that they are loved by the other are high points of the show, staged as delectable exhibitions of physical comedy. Meisle even takes a dunk in the fountain for one of the show’s biggest laughs.
The leads provide the show’s appeal as they quarrel and quibble and sling mud at each other. The disputatious couple lives up to the challenge presented by the material and when they finally lock lips the audience swoons.
Much Ado is actually not just about the love/hate affair between Beatrice and Benedick, even though I’m probably not the first to wish that it was. The narrative concerns a military unit, fresh from action, which arrives for some R&R at the sugarcane plantation of Leonato. The unit is commanded by Don Pedro, a close friend of Leonato, and by his side are Claudio, a young nobleman, and Don John, Pedro’s nefarious brother who immediately begins hatching schemes a la Shakespeare villains. Claudio falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero and makes plans to marry, wherein the story of amour and deception begins.
Among the uneven supporting cast Ryan Garbayo is somewhat bland in the usually thankless role of Claudio; Matthew Saldivar awkwardly lurks and poses about the stage as the plotting blackguard Don John; David Emerson Toney plays the likable Don Pedro with a great, expressive face but garbles his lines at times, all the more damaging when playing Shakespeare; and local favorite Ted van Griethuysen goes vaudeville as the rarely funny Dogberry, although the audience seemed to be eating up his antics.
I will admit I just don’t get Dogberry. Or I don’t get the typical Dogberry performance, which tends to skew sillier than a Benny Hill impersonation. Reading Dogberry and his unfortunate malapropisms is often hilarious and quite brilliant, but performances tend to overdo the ham-fisted characterization and this is one of the hammiest.
Unquestionably the conquering element of McSweeny’s vivacious production is the conceptual resetting of the play to Cuba, which allowed for the supremely gorgeous two-level hacienda set by designer Lee Savage, complete with red brick tile and centerpiece fountain, beautiful period costumes by Clint Ramos and the festive Latin American music and dance scenes and interludes. That’s two for two recently, as I thought McSweeny’s transplanting of The Merchant of Venice last season from Italy to Manhattan’s Lower East Side was another conceptual stroke that paid off.
One question however: After accepting the change in locale, made much ado of in marketing materials and costumes and flags, why was there still mention of Messina, from the original Sicilian treatment? After “Guantanamera” is sung, characters spoke with Latin American accents, the battle of Cienfuegos was mentioned … why keep mentioning Messina? Why not adjust to Havana, another port city? You wouldn’t even have had to change the metre.
Much Ado About Nothing runs thru Jan 1, 2012 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, D.C.
Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Ethan McSweeny
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running Time: About 3 hours with 1 intermission