Much Ado About Nothing

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Editorial Review

Shakespeare company gives ‘Much Ado’ a Cuban flavor

By Peter Marks
Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

No Shakespeare comedy depends on spontaneous romantic combustion as crucially as does "Much Ado About Nothing." Yes, "The Taming of the Shrew's" Kate and Petruchio must fall desperately in love with a ruckus, and Rosalind has to agonize over Orlando - and "like it." But the permutations of affectionate loathing that Beatrice and Benedick express for each other on the way to nuptial bliss illuminate the most satisfying and mature vision of attraction in all of Shakespeare's lighter plays and, perhaps, the darker ones, too.

Beatrice and Benedick are turned on by each other's brains, a sophisticated definition of sexiness that's showcased in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's becoming, if overly concept dependent, new rendition of "Much Ado," which had its formal opening Sunday night at Sidney Harman Hall. Under Ethan McSweeny's mostly assured direction, the Beatrice and Benedick of Kathryn Meisle and Derek Smith achieve the goal that eludes some incarnations of this oft-seen work: the notion that this couple, Elizabethan forerunners of Noel Coward's Amanda and Elyot (and so many other amorous duelists) are predestined mates of the wits as well as the soul.

What worldly bloke with a decent IQ wouldn't eventually succumb to Meisle's chicly feline Beatrice? The actress, a late-inning substitution for Veanne Cox, who departed during rehearsals, is an ideal Beatrice: She projects both beauty and a breachable aloofness, an illusion sustained by a playful embrace of the character's language (and one disarming dip in a very cold fountain). Smith's Benedick proves to be her fitting partner; a foundation of his portrayal is an endearing given: The more this courtly Benedick mopes and protests and glances back over his shoulder at her, the surer we are that he's head over heels for his tart-tongued adversary.

"Were they but a week married, they would talk themselves mad," declares Beatrice's uncle, Leonato, in a compellingly forceful turn by Adrian Sparks. It's true: These well-mannered exhibitionists will drive each other crazy and revel in the public fusses they eternally kick up.

With the polish of this high-end comic couple - and at the play's opposite end, the surefire lunacy of its low-comedy pairing of the addle-pated watchmen Dogberry (Ted van Griethuysen) and Verges (that rascally scene-stealer, Floyd King) - the company's new "Much Ado" has lots of good things going for it. And in many ways, McSweeny's handling of this comedy's buoyant plotting is visually and even conceptually superior to his last effort, a "Merchant of Venice" last season that he transplanted from Italy to Manhattan's immigrant-filled Lower East Side.

This time, the very specific location and time is Cuba in the 1930s, a setting that retains the sun-baked sensuality of Shakespeare's Messina and gives the director, composer Steven Cahill and choreographer Marcos Santana opportunities for a few conga-drumming, hip-bouncing fiestas. It also provides set designer Lee Savage with the inspiration for a gorgeous set - the central, open space of Leonato's hacienda, complete with a weather-worn garden statue of Cupid. The dresses and satin robes that costume designer Clint Ramos drapes on the women of "Much Ado" aptly reflect the sleek tailoring of the period.

Assigning a few of the actors Spanish accents and changing a few words here and there -"Much Ado" now includes references to Havana, pesos, a mantilla and the cha-cha - doesn't do any harm. Not overly banal, either, is the arrival of Dogberry and his ragtag band of men chanting the well-known Cuban patriotic song "Guantanamera." (Maybe one verse would have been enough.) But even though two of the other characters in the retinue were originally given the indisputably English names of Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal, did the director really have to rename them, cringingly, Juan Huevos (Phil Hosford) and Jose Frijoles (Carlos J. Gonzalez)? The joke is coarser than this "Much Ado" deserves, and the glib cultural referencing in general comes across as a little patronizing.

In view of what King is able to do with the role of Dogberry's sidekick, you're easily persuaded that the actors don't need much competition from the textual tinkering. Outfitted as if he were Yosemite Sam and waving an ear trumpet, King plays Verges as a doddering relic of the cane fields, shuffling behind van Griethuysen's expertly buffoonish Dogberry at a speed of something like 1 / 8 mph.

The rigid attitudes about women's purity do, on the other hand, translate successfully to the Latin landscape. Aside from Beatrice and Benedick's contest of wills, what drives the proceedings is the dastardly plot of the malicious Don John (Matthew Saldivar), brother of Don Pedro (a fine David Emerson Toney). He falsely besmirches the honor of Beatrice's cousin Hero (Kate Hurster) and thus undermines the plans for her marriage to Benedick's friend Claudio (Ryan Garbayo). The mechanics of the Hero story are respectably dramatized here, even if the forgiveness that Hero so rapidly offers to Claudio after Don John's plot unravels remains one of those credulity-testing moments for a modern audience.

It's only right that the bracing focus of the evening's pleasure is the play's most remarkable aspect, the intellectually level playing field that Shakespeare came up with for his two main characters. The well-matched Meisle and Smith do Beatrice and Benedick's verbal tango full justice. And that is certainly something.

Backstage: ‘Much Ado’ in Cuba

By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday. Nov. 23, 2011

Even though Romeo and Juliet might be the go-to reference for romantic love, director Ethan McSweeny is more of a Beatrice and Benedick fan. Because, well, Juliet is a 12-year-old girl. And Beatrice is not.

“I like Beatrice and Benedick because they’re grown-ups,” he said. “They’re too experienced to not be skeptical about romantic love. . . . I think I’ve always identified with their skepticism and yet with the fact that, underneath, in order to be a cynic you have to be a believer.”

The McSweeny-directed production of “Much Ado About Nothing” opens Nov. 25 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Beatrice (who will be played by Kathryn Meisle, instead of the originally cast Veanne Cox who left over “creative differences”) and Benedick (Derek Smith) are the classic example of opposites who attract. The man who is the ultimate guy’s guy. The woman who isn’t afraid to be smarter than he is.

STC’s production is set in Cuba in the 1930s. Which might sound like kind of a gimmick — sure, it’s Shakespeare, but there’s salsa and the mambo! — however McSweeny insists there’s a logic behind the location. A good setting “should draw out or amplify themes in the play and help you tell the story.”

In this case, some of the parallels are obvious: For instance, Sicily, the story’s original locale, is an island, as is Cuba. But the real resonance is a cultural one.

“You need a culture with a certain amount of machismo in it,” McSweeny said. “Where the men and the women have expectations of one another’s behavior.

“You know Beatrice and Benedick only have 90 lines together in the entire first act of the play? They spend more time talking about each other than to each other. It is a real culture where there’s a lot of gender-fication. . . . Women’s choices are a little limited to what men think those choices should be.”

There’s also the need for a looming threat of combat, or at least a “low-level conflict [with] a civil war quality,” said McSweeny, citing a “series of uprisings and revolts” that plagued Cuba in the 1930s.

“Part of my job is to provide an audience who has seen the play before with something they haven’t seen,” he said. But first-time viewers of “Much Ado” need not worry about missing the true Shakespeare experience. “It’s just as important to provide something for the audience members that have never seen the play with something that is authentically the play.”