One of the things that distinguish Shakespeare from all of the playwrights who preceded him (and almost all who followed) is the emotional complexity of his characters -- and, indeed, of his entire worldview, in which comedy and tragedy are inextricably intertwined. Some of the characters in his comedies are melancholy or philosophical (Jaques in As You Like It, Antonio in The Merchant of Venice), complexly otherworldly (Caliban in The Tempest) or evil (Iachimo in Cymbeline, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing). Many of these plays contain tragic elements --just as the tragedies have comic scenes -- or could easily tip into tragedy were some piece of the action to go awry. Think of the terrifying reign of the tortured, puritanical Angelo in Measure for Measure, or the towering, tragic figure of Shylock in Merchant.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of the sunnier comedies, with a first half that consists almost entirely of flirtatious wordplay and a lighthearted central premise: Can Beatrice and Benedick, two people who are determined to remain single and have spent years insulting each other, acknowledge what is clear to everyone around them -- that they're crazy in love? But there's a secondary plot involving Beatrice's cousin Hero and her love for Benedick's friend and comrade-in-arms Claudio, and here the script flirts with sorrow -- even death -- as the young couple's plans are disrupted by the plottings of the wicked Don John.
Claudio rejects Hero at the altar and leaves her prostrate with grief. What follows is a scene that reveals Shakespeare at the height of his expressive and imaginary powers. Alone together, Beatrice and Benedick admit their feelings for each other. Full of tenderness and joyous triumph -- and following the conventions of courtly love -- Benedick asks Beatrice what task he can undertake for her. She responds with two words: "Kill Claudio."
When actress Hollis McCarthy spoke those words in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Much Ado, the audience laughed. These were not, as far as I could tell, the uncomfortable titters of people who'd been shocked and disconcerted by her command, but cheerful giggles. And that's when I realized just how wrongheaded the CSF production is.
The night before, I had seen The Taming of the Shrew -- a much shallower play -- given depth and heart by director Robin McKee and the two leads: Sarah Fallon as Kate and Tony Molina as Petruchio. I'd actually found myself a little misty-eyed when Kate and Petruchio finally kissed. Yet here I was, feeling uncomfortable and defensive as Beatrice and Benedick declared their love in far more interesting language.
Director Jane Page has set this version of Much Ado in the Wild West -- which is not, in itself, a bad idea. Colorado theaters usually do Wild West better than they do Elizabethan England; the accents tend to cohere, and the theme allows for the addition of fun yippee-ai-ay bits of business. Robert Cothran's set is ingenious, providing playing areas at several levels as well as an old-style saloon; the costumes, by Maureen T. Carr-Stevens, are down-home and authentic. I loved the colorful bovine masks the actors sport at the ball, and it was fun seeing patriarch Leonato as a tall, Stetson-wearing cowboy. In fact, things went swimmingly for a while.
But by the time we should have found ourselves involved by the characters and immersed in their story, it was clear that character in this production is entirely subservient to shtick. At one point, three of the men conspire to con Benedick -- who is listening to them in hiding -- into thinking that Beatrice is pining away for love of him. Later, three of the women do the same to Beatrice. These scenes are funny as written -- really, they are. The humor comes from the wild mixture of fear, horror, joy and excitement felt by Beatrice and Benedick. And while double-takes and pratfalls are fine, some of the stuff that Page and her actors have come up with is just plain silly. When Benedick falls into a horse trough, it's mildly amusing; the second, almost identical fall is a bore. And as for Beatrice squawking like a chicken and hiding her face behind a pair of bloomers while the rest of her remains in plain sight, it's embarrassing. Up to this point, James E.L. Esely was a rather interesting and authoritative Leonato, but for the gulling scene, he makes the character into a fumbling fool, tripping over his words and using a ridiculous falsetto when he mimics Beatrice's voice. In other words, he sacrifices a solid characterization for easy laughs. On the night I saw the show, Tony Marble, playing Benedick, was apparently so exhausted by all his scuttlings about that he forgot one of the play's best lines, Benedick's excuse for changing his mind about bachelorhood: "The world must be peopled."
(At least I hope he forgot it. Since Marble is also playing Hamlet and has two immense parts to learn this summer, that would be understandable. If someone deliberately cut the line, it's inexcusable.)
By the time the tedious Dogberry and his cohorts are bumbling around, the evening has dissolved into chaos and undergraduate humor.
It's as if the cast and the director have no faith in either the audience or the rhythm and music of the script. As a result, we don't empathize with Hero and Claudio; we're not touched by Beatrice and Benedick's newly discovered passion for each other; and some audience members laugh out loud at the pivotal moment when Much Ado trembles between comedy and tragedy.
Marble could have been an original and exciting Benedick. He has a fine speaking voice; he's lean, sexy and athletic. I'd like to have seen him in a production that allowed him to attend to the character's bearing and inner life. Hollis McCarthy possesses a Katharine Hepburn-ish intelligence and dignity as Beatrice, but she may be too subtle an actress for the outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre, which demands a big presence and a strong, highly trained voice. Kip Pierson's Claudio is quirky and emotionally open, a little reminiscent of the kvetchy but sexy doctor played by Rob Morrow on Northern Exposure. Pierson's another actor I'd like to see in something else. I can't figure out why Jessie Fisher's Hero left me so cold, when the actress showed such touching spunk and mischief as the doomed Sophie in the university's production of The White Rose last year. Jessica Austgen is a highly original talent, brilliant in certain roles, but why was she allowed to scene-steal so uninhibitedly, and why did her character, Margaret, seem to inhabit an entirely different world from that of the other characters?
If you want to savor the true wit and sensuality of Shakespeare's Much Ado, you should rent Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film, starring himself and Emma Thompson, and give this production a miss.
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