Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare’s best comedy, if we properly understand The Merchant of Venice to be a tragedy and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a freakin’ miracle. It is full of breathtaking wit; its characters are ripe and full and deep; and the second chances it arranges for its foolish men and women bathe us with a sort of sentimental joy.
Like most of Shakespeare, it is far too big to be confined to a single culture, and director Timothy Douglas’ decision to move it from Messina after the wars to the annual DC Caribbean Carnival in Folger’s fine, imaginative production does not diminish its impact one whit. Much Ado resonates in the Caribbean Carnival setting, as it resonates in every setting human mind has so far devised for it, and as it will resonate a thousand years from now, when it is played on some as-yet undiscovered planet by twelve-foot-tall creatures who resemble celery stalks.
Having said that, I must also note that setting this story of revenge, vanity and forgiveness in the relaxed, joyous atmosphere of the H Street Carnival does not particularly add to our understanding, or have any inherent virtue beyond introducing us to Tony Cisek’s beautifully articulated set and Matt Neilsen’s street sounds, so realistic that I initially thought our security forces were responding to some catastrophe outside. It may be a little hard to understand Don John’s (Joel David Santer) near-homicidal fury without seeing him marched in as a prisoner of war, and watching Don Pedro (Tony Nam), Claudio (Alexis Camins) and Benedick (Howard W. Overshown) saunter in wearing the short-sleeve uniform of friendly policemen rather than the raiment of war diminishes the sense of post-battle triumphalism which otherwise permeates the play. Having a woman (the excellent Dionne Audain) play Borachio, whose job it is to seduce a virtuous woman’s handmaiden in order to convince the woman’s fiancée that it is she herself Borachio is seducing, might also prompt a slight disconnect at the outset. I recommend that you not think too hard about these things, as you similarly ignore other elements of the play which no longer make emotional sense (Don Pedro’s plot to win the hand of the beautiful Hero, and then turn her over to his friend Claudio, comes to mind immediately).
This will free you to enjoy the acting, and in particular the astonishing performance by the magnificent Overshown as Benedick. The interplay of wit between Beatrice (Rachel Leslie) and Benedick is the most important and satisfying part of Much Ado, and it is usually Beatrice who is the more compelling figure, as she has the better lines and usually one-ups her testosterone-handicapped partner/opponent. But – and this is no rap against Leslie, who does a fine job – in this production Overshown is so charismatic, so subtle, so specific that it is impossible not to watch him, or anticipate every moment that he walks on to the stage.
There is a moment in the play which gives us an opportunity, should we chose to take it, to simply observe a superior actor at work. Claudio and Don Pedro, along with their host Leonato (Doug Brown), have hatched a plot to bring Benedick and Beatrice together. While Benedick believes himself to be hidden from them, they loudly and ostentatiously discuss Beatrice’s secret protestations of love for Benedick – protestations which although the plotters have fabricated, nonetheless express Beatrice’s unspoken but real emotions. As they do this, look at Benedick’s face, as it crosses from wonder, to horror, to hope, to pleasure, to horror again, and then to complete confusion. He says nothing, and is in no way showy or theatrical. He simply looks like a man who is in love with a woman he respects and fears a little, and is astounded by the intelligence that she loves him back. Brothers and sisters, that’s acting.
A brief summary of the plot: Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick return home from the wars, with Don Pedro’s brother Don John in tow. They stop to visit Leonato, who lives with his daughter Hero (Roxi Victorian) and niece Beatrice. Benedick and Beatrice have a history – she hints that she once loved him, but that he trifled with her heart – and they immediately start in on each other like two contending middleweights with something to prove. In the meantime, Claudio falls hard for Hero, and Don Pedro agrees to win her for himself, and then turn her over to Claudio – which he does, to her immense satisfaction. All this wit and joy is too much for Don John, and when Borachio offers to mess around with Hero’s handmaiden Margaret (Fatima Quander) in Hero’s apartment while Margaret is dressed in Hero’s clothing, all in full view of Claudio and Don Pedro, Don John accepts, and gives her a thousand ducats. It seems to work – Claudio is flabbergasted, and denounces Hero on the day of their scheduled wedding – but at the last moment is foiled when a drunken Borachio brags about her crime to the morbidly obtuse constabulary, Dogberry (Alex Perez) and Verges (Matt MacNelly), the Dumb and Dumber of the police force. Regrettably, Dogberry’s hopelessly learned and incomprehensible language is insufficient to inform the real authorities of the crime, and until Borachio is forced to repeat her confession to Hero’s shrewd friend Ursula (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman) everyone is in a rage of sorrow and confusion. Eventually, though, after some plot developments you should discover for yourself, everything is set to rights, and it is time to par-tay.
Douglas, whose first work as a director was in staging Richard III at Folger fourteen years ago, knows his Shakespeare, and he has an army of fine actors to back up his spot-on interpretation with spot-on line reads and performances. In particular, Santner and Audain imbue their characters with a swagger and menace which accelerates the conflict; when Don John feigns sincerity in his denunciation of Hero Santner plays a bad man pretending to be a good man, and is equally convincing bad and good. Perez and MacNelly play their buffoons as men of impenetrable self-confidence, which makes them all the funnier. Perez, additionally, does some great physical comedy. I loved Nam as Don Pedro, a man only a few years (if that) older than Claudio and Benedick who nonetheless carries the aroma of natural authority around with him. The estimable Craig Wallace, who here plays a character called Brother (a combination of Antonio and a few minor characters) lends gravity and stability, and his rock-like presence allows Leonato to become a little unhinged emotionally in a confrontation with Claudio and Don Pedro near the end of the play. The rest of the actors are all first-rate, except for Overshown, who is so good his performance beggars description.
There remains the mystery of the title. Claudio believes his fiancée is unfaithful to him, and both Beatrice and Benedick have vowed never to marry because to give their hearts might mean that they would lose them, be betrayed and never get them back. How can that be “about nothing”? Dramaturg Michele Osherow argues that the title is a pun on the word “noting”, since noting and nothing were pronounced the same way in Shakespeare’s time.
Here is a different theory: Claudio’s fears about Hero’s fidelity, and Beatrice and Benedick’s abstract worries about threats to their self-contained dignity, are defenses of the ego against the possibility of love. And thus to Shakespeare, who knew love and heartbreak in many forms, they are truly nothing. As men returning from war, with the stench of death still in their nostrils, Claudio and Benedick should have known that ego, like all that is not love, is nothing at all, and that the only way to live is with arms open to love, which streams in like sunlight and beats against the shore of the Caribbean, or H Street, and brings with it an endless summer.
NOTE: Matt MacNelly reviewed shows in the 2008 Fringe Festival for DC Theatre Scene. That has not affected the objectivity of my review.
Much Ado About Nothing – TOP PICK!
By William Shakespeare
Produced by Folger Theatre
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING