Much Ado About Nothing
Poet W.H. Auden once described Beatrice and Benedick as the Shakespearean couple he’d most want to sit next to at a dinner party. The sparring couple, whose stormy romance makes up the central plot of “Much Ado About Nothing,” certainly exudes charm, and, more importantly, sharp tongues that could make even the dullest evening pass without too much duress.
Though they won’t be elbowing you with bitchy retorts, they nonetheless make wonderful company in the splendid mounting of the play that the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has brought to the Boston Common through August 1. Under the hand of director Steven Maler, the combustible relationship is played with much brio by Jonno Roberts and Georgia Hatzis who capture the headstrong zeal of their characters with sure-fire authority.
Both are graduates of the American Repertory Theatre’s Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, and are married in real life, placing their performances squarely in a tradition that dates back to the Lunts. (Most recently the [then] husband-and-wife team of Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson played the roles in Branaugh’s film version.) They certainly hold their own: Roberts is cocky, quick, and a bit silly as his cool façade is revealed to be not much more than bluster. Hatzis, an angular beauty who can deliver her lines with a volcanic intensity, is equally adept at deflating her character’s hard-edge. There’s broadness to their performances, but that comes as much from the outdoor setting which demands a more oversized style of acting to be persuasive.
But “Much Ado” is about much more than this couple, acting as a counterpoint is the story of Claudio, a young nobleman and fellow soldier to Benedick, and Hero, the daughter of the governor of the Sicilian town, Messina, the soldiers, under the command of a prince named Don Pedro, settle in. They are in love and plan on marrying, but not before some vicious mischief by Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John and his cronies disrupt their wedding plans.
How they do it leads to the much more dramatic second half, one where a father humiliates his daughter before the wedding assembly, leading to what appears to be her death. What Maler does extremely well is modulate the play’s disparate moods, moving from the sunny first half to its far darker second without missing a beat. When Leonato, the angry father played with superb intensity by Paul Farwell, berates Hero, his daughter, the play’s larger themes on the impact of vicious prank come into full focus. For her part Amelia Nickles brings a subtle delicacy to Hero, and her pairing with Kaolin Bass, as the hot-blooded Claudio, contrasts nicely with their more sharply-drawn counterparts Roberts and Hatzis.
Certainly this mix of light and dark makes the play the most satisfying of Shakespeare comedies, and Maler gets both halves right, from the high drama of the wedding scene to the broadly comic interludes that feature Bobbi Steinbach as a malaprop-pron Constable who inadvertently capture the show’s villains, a pair of amoral lords with devious motives. Steinbach appears to be channeling W.C. Fields in her mannered delivery, but it works surprisingly well, making her performance a real audience pleaser.
Additionally the large, multi-cultural cast features fine work from a sample of familiar Boston actors, including Sean McGirk, Vincent Siders, Ricardo Engerman, Carolina DeLima, and Jacqui Parker.
The production values are first-rate: Scott Bradley’s set – a monumental rendering of the exterior of an Italian square complete with a working fountain dominated by a towering Renaissance façade – makes a striking and functional backdrop. Clint E.B. Ramos’ Edwardian costume designs are as playful as they are lovely; and Linda O’Brien’s striking lighting design enhances the play’s varying moods. There is also first-rate sound design by J. Hagenbuckle, and sweetly Italianate musical interludes by an on-stage band that recall the work of Fellini’s favorite composer Nino Rota.
“Much Ado About Nothing” may seem like a frivolous choice in these heady times, but it also makes a welcome respite from the politically charged atmosphere that has all but taken over the city. It may be all DNC all the time in some quarters, but at least on the Common, it is Shakespeare at his most romantic, and it is something to be treasured. This is simply the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s best work since “The Tempest” a few summer’s ago, a joyful production that is likely to produce many smiles on a summer’s night.
Remaining performances of “Much Ado About Nothing” are Tuesday through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m., with additional performances July 26 at 8 p.m. and July 31 at 2 p.m. Note: the following performances have been cancelled: July 25 at 1 p.m.; July 28 at 2 p.m.; and July 29 at 8 p.m. At the Boston Common, through August 1. Admission is free.