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Much Ado About Nothing

A Dozen Reasons to See This Production

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Saturday, January 21, 2012, D–5&6 (center stalls)
Actors’ Renaissance Season

Benjamin Curns, book in hand, surprised look on his face during gulling scene, with audience laughing around him
Benjamin Curns as Benedick hears that Beatrice loves him during the gulling scene as the theater audience reacts around him during Much Ado About Nothing at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Tommy Thompson, American Shakespeare Center.

This was the ninth Much Ado I’ve seen, and, typical of all Shakespeare’s plays, I picked up lines and moments I’d never caught before. But even if I could attend all 35 performances of this production’s Actors’ Renaissance Season run (through April 8), I would surely laugh anew each time, thanks to Shakespeare, thanks to the Blackfriars Playhouse playing conditions, and thanks most of all to the company’s 12 actors who also serve as the production’s 12 directors.

Honestly, if I were living within 30 miles of Staunton I would see as many performances of this production as I could, for in the hands and mouths of this exemplary company working in the Blackfriars environs, Much Ado About Nothing becomes a living thing, a new experience with each outing.

The actors mine even the most nuanced lines for laughs. Take as an example Don Pedro (Gregory Jon Phelps) telling Benedick and Claudio that Leonato had invited them all to stay with him. “I tell him we shall stay here at the least a month,” Don Pedro says. Guffaw-worthy, no? Well, it is if you happen to catch Benjamin Curns as Benedick react to the news that he’d just been conscripted to spend a month or more in the general vicinity of Beatrice. At the end of the play, Phelps got his own laugh with this throw-away line upon Hero revealing herself to Claudio: “The former Hero! Hero that is dead!” Phelps just-so-slightly extended the pause between the two phrases, played to the exclamation marks, and addressed his astonishment to the audience, earning a laugh in both his line-reading and the circumstance that only he and Claudio were unaware Hero had been alive all along and thus were the butt of an extensive joke.

These moments, and too many more to count or recount, came courtesy of a company that is to my Shakespearean world what the 1927 Yankees or ’75 Reds or ’95 Braves are to my baseball world: as talented a line-up as you will ever find. Not all-stars in the popular sense, but all stellar in the theatrical sense and molded into a team that scores often and in many ways. Besides, for those of us who frequent the Blackfriars this is an all-star lineup because every one of these actors have won our plaudits before. Though a couple were playing in their first Actors’ Renaissance Season (with no director, actors using only cue scripts put together the plays in less than a week’s time), they all were Blackfriars veterans who knew how to play to and with the audience in this tight space under universal lighting.

More important—and most revealing in this Much Ado—they embraced the American Shakespeare Center philosophy that the text in all its purity dictate the production’s concept. The concept for Much Ado About Nothing is that it’s funny as all get out. It has as deep a meaning as you’ll find in a typical Seinfeld sketch (a modern much adoing about nothing). The company specifically relies on Shakespeare’s Folio and Quarto versions. Thus, in the final scene where editors (and many directors) have Benedick speak the line to Beatrice “Peace! I will stop your mouth” and punctuate it with a kiss, this production kept the line with the character given it in the original texts: Leonato. René Thornton Jr. said it as he pushed his niece (Miriam Donald) into a kiss with Curns’ Benedick, a funny and poignant moment because twice before in the play the two were interrupted just as they were about to kiss. Furthermore, this bit of comic impatience on Leonato’s part was central to Thornton’s take on the character.

This production also turned to the original texts to tackle the conundrum of Margaret. Directors and actresses for years have grappled with the playing of Margaret’s reaction to Claudio’s accusation of Hero in the church. However, Shakespeare didn’t include Margaret in the stage direction listing the characters attending the wedding. Conundrum solved! Allison Glenzer could then play Margaret exactly as Shakespeare wrote her throughout, a ribald, witty foil equal to the wits of Beatrice and Benedick. She is present when Leonato comments on Margaret having “some fault” in the scheme to discredit Hero, “although against her will, as it appears,” and in this production these two llines led to some semiplayful arm-slapping among Beatrice, Ursula, and Margaret.

This is the formula the whole cast used to create their individual parts and collectively direct this play, starting with Much Ado’s most difficult part, Claudio, taken on by Chris Johnston. This actor is a longtime Blackfriars veteran and usually relegated to multiple minor roles, and it was good to see him cast as a play’s central figure and in such a challenging part—challenging if you try to read more into Shakespeare’s presentation than what’s there. Johnston found in the text a Claudio who was comfortable in the company of his comrades, shy outside that context, unsure in romance, and easily deluded. He displayed the positive characteristics everybody notes of him though to us and Beatrice he revealed his immaturely hot-headed nature: No mystery in that, as I’m sure he’s like a lot of people you probably know. Hero is another difficult role, one Shakespeare seemed to have drawn in relief to Beatrice and Margaret while other characters dictate her life. She is even wooed by proxy though her love interest is right there. Brandi Rhome did not usurp her place in the play (actors sometimes do not get enough credit for not overplaying a part), maintaining her role as a truly innocent victim, so that when Rhome revealed a crack in Hero's constitution we could all sympathize with her.

Curns seemed to find comedy in almost all of Benedick’s lines, except when he agreed to take on the challenge of Claudio for Beatrice, at which point he became gallantly formal. Otherwise, he used nuanced physical humor to display Benedick’s moments of discomfort and broader strokes for the humor in the gulling scene. Curns’ chief gift, though, was using members of the audience as his straight men and women. When he practiced his love song for Beatrice, it was plainly awful (though Curns is otherwise a talented singer and musician), so as the audience applauded, Curns waved off the ovation and spoke the song’s last line, “How pitiful I deserve.” It seemed like an ad lib, but it was Shakespeare’s written verse expertly utilized in that spontaneous moment.

Miriam Donald’s Beatrice was the center of attention every time she was on stage, even when she wasn’t talking, such was the force of her personality. Merrily unserious except for her jabs at Benedick (and realizing too late she had run her wit out of bounds when Don Pedro proposed to her), Donald's deliveries were like a comedienne’s stand-up routine, layering joke upon joke with effective pacing, jaunty postures, and apt gestures working the crowd, those on stage and the playhouse audience. A highlight of this was her vow to never marry until men are made of “some other metal than earth,” a riff that concludes with Beatrice comparing the male gender to “a wayward clod of marl.” This earned a huge laugh as funny in and of itself and as Donald shaped the clod of marl with her gestures.

While others were finding rich humor in their parts, Daniel Kennedy presented a serious side to Antonio, Leonato’s brother. His challenge to Claudio wasn’t a comic set piece of an old man wanting to take on a young guy (Kennedy did not play the part as an ancient); rather, Kennedy earnestly issued Antonio’s challenge in such a voice and fiddling of his sword that Claudio likely would not have fared well against this peeved man whose bite was probably as sharp as his bark. The irony is that Kennedy is one of the company’s most accomplished actors in physical comedy, and he put that talent on full display with his hippy artiste of a Balthazar, over-feigning humility as he played his awful song awfully (though Kennedy, too, is an accomplished musician).

Aidan O’Reilly created a Hollywood stand-apart style (all in black, from shoes to shades) for his Don John, a look inspired by the part’s curt lines. More than any other Shakespeare villain, Don John relishes villainy for villainy’s sake (he has no other motive whatsoever), and is only happy when others are suffering. Jeremy West played his henchman Borachio as a smooth and arrogant operator, and Sarah Fallon gave Conrad every ounce of her acting energy despite his being mostly a silent participant in the proceedings. Fallon's Conrad was obviously aggravated at being handcuffed for the mere crime of hearing Borachio's tale, so when she issued the play's centerpiece comic line, calling Dogberry an ass, it came from a very real place and made people on stage and in the stalls draw in their breaths.

Well, this Dogberry was, indeed, an ass. John Harrell played him as a heavy-set and egomaniacal police detective wearing a tan sports jacket, slightly mismatched tidewater tan pants, a necktie that barely reached below his sternum, and his police badge pinned to his belt under the overhang of a beer gut. Strutting and sneering as he abused his charges, his suspects, and the English language in equal measure, Harrell showed us why Dogberry is such a timeless clown (in an example of this production's nature as a living organism, the run opened with Harrell costuming himself as an English police bobby; changing the character to a pompous detective was a gift to subsequent audiences as well as his fellow actors).

The whole cast using the play’s earliest texts and operating in Shakespeare’s own staging conditions displayed this play’s amazing timelessness as a romantic comedy. 1927 Yankees? Nah. I should liken the 2013 Actors’ Renaissance Company to the 1598 Chamberlain’s Men. Both companies in like manner scored with Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Eric Minton
January 26, 2012

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