Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Ann Ciccolella. Austin Shakespeare at the Rollins Theatre, The Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin, TX. November 15, 2017
Reviewed by Michael Saenger.
On an elegantly open stage, punctuated only by a standing lattice arch, Austin Shakespeare created an intoxicating sense of optimism and the distinct impression that marriage is immanent. This play is not about young people. Ann Ciccolella’s direction of the slightly older, if not quite wiser, comedic lovers of Much Ado About Nothing felt as airy as the set, as the actors flirted and plotted in front of an arced backdrop of muslin curtains that hid suspended lights with a festive, numinous wonderment. We witnessed the revelation of love between Benedick and Beatrice, as well as the denunciation of Hero by her putative match, Claudio.
Many of Shakespeare’s comedies dramatize the violence inherent in what is often called romantic comedy, and it remains to be seen how the #metoo movement will make its presence felt onstage. For now, though, the present cultural moment seems to highlight an aesthetic problem in Shakespeare’s comedy. How does laughter find a place in a world where a bride shows up to her wedding only to be denounced as sensual and threatened with death and dismemberment by her fiancé, duke and father? The play itself handles this issue by putting a stress on her innocence, and the fact that she was falsely accused of extramarital sex. Her innocence is proven, and her marriageability is restored. But that remedy hardly solves the problems of the play in a modern context.
In this version, instead of her duke calling her a “stale”, the word is updated to “slut”—which hit the theater like a blunt force object. It is jarring to hear such an updated insertion, especially when the word “slut” does occur elsewhere in Shakespeare, with a different set of connotations. This particular performance seemed to view that denunciation as an inevitable crisis in the path of true love. Similarly, there were a lot of attempts at humor through stage business and mugging, which often felt forced. Two of the most awkward moments were when Dogberry used a whoopie cushion, and when the same character inexplicably wailed comically during Hero’s funeral procession. Other attempts at humor included characters who almost forget their lines, and a hiding character who pretends to be a bird. The play is full of verbal jokes, but none of them were delivered with enough care to get a laugh.
The play’s particular blend of sincerity and ridiculousness was captured in the scenes involving Gwendolyn Kelso’s lovely Beatrice and Marc Pouhé’s powerful Benedick. Pouhé in particular captured the warmth and vulnerability of his character, coming across as both fragile and generous in his bearing. When the play allowed him to talk with Beatrice toward the end, both he and Kelso were vibrantly connected, although they came off more as friends than lovers. That and the scene when Benedick issues a challenge to Claudio were moments that felt both deeply Shakespearean and fundamentally relevant.
The vividly colorful Edwardian costumes were a visual feast, and it’s really hard to argue with the light rhythms of bossa nova that drifted through the production from start to finish. Some of the actors, such as Patrick David Wheeler as the reckless Borachio, were treating the play as a risky comedy, while others performed in a more farcical style. While this is an enjoyable production, it is hard to resist the desire to imagine how a performance less anxious for immediate laughter might find a different set of emotions, and a different kind of comedy.