Saturday, April 7, 2012

More Ado About Nothing

The production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing now on stage at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka is light on its feet. The action and the language move swiftly and intelligibly.

 There are basically two stories to tell: the melodramatic tale of false accusations made against a noble’s daughter that disrupts one love affair, and the more comic battle of wits of another couple, who are nevertheless destined for each other. It is the interplay of this latter couple—Beatrice and Benedick—that gives this play its enduring fame.

 The mixture of these stories makes this play unique. Both stories begin lightly, with the return of soldiers after a war. A wealthy landowner, Leonato (played by James Read), his daughter, Hero (Jennifer Trustem), niece Beatrice (Kimberly Haile) and brother Antonio (Scott Osborn) greet these soldiers, who evidently had been stationed there before: the prince Don Pedro (Bobby Bennett), the young Claudio (Evan Needham) and Benedick (Ethan Edmonds.) Lurking in the background is Don John (David Hamilton), the surly villain of the piece.

 As Beatrice and Benedick continue their “merry war” of witticisms aimed at each other, Claudio falls in love with Hero. When this match seems assured, the others set about tricking Beatrice and Benedick (in a couple of madcap scenes) into realizing they love each other.

 But both stories turn serious at the aborted wedding of Claudio and Hero, after Claudio and Don Pedro have been deceived by agents of Don John into believing Hero is unfaithful. It is to the particular credit of veteran actors Bob Service and especially James Read that this scene is credibly powerful. Evan Needham is also notably effective in this scene.

 This crisis brings Beatrice and Benedick together, and after much more ado, the play ends happily with promises of several repetitions of “I do.”

 The roles of Beatrice and Benedick (who W.H. Auden called Shakespeare’s most likeable characters) have attracted many famous actors through the centuries, most recently including Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in what for my money is among the best movies made from a Shakespeare play, and the former Doctor Who tandem of Catherine Tate and David Tennant in a British stage version last year.

 In this production, Kimberly Haile’s performance as Beatrice is bold, quick, vivid and broad. With light movements and line readings that are natural and nuanced, Ethan Emmons is a superior Benedick. Though very different in style from his recent role in Look Back in Anger at Ferndale Rep, his performance here is again reason enough to see this show.

 Among the generally solid supporting cast, Charlie Heinberg as the drunken conspirator Borachio had an especially affecting scene. Other cast members not named so far are Katy Curtis, Wesley Fuller, Marin Griffin, Zoe Helton, Megan Johnson, Ed Munn, Alex Service, Pam Service, Keili Simmons Marble and George Szabo.

 The production is uneven, and the Benedick and Beatrice relationship didn’t seem to me to quite find its heart until very late. But apart from some lapses of taste that might spoil this soufflĂ© for some viewers, it is inventive and enjoyable. Director Calder Johnson creates a credible world and mostly equips his actors to succeed.

 Though the period is awkwardly but not fatally changed to the 1940s, Shakespeare’s location of Sicily is retained, by which the Bard basically signals that the characters are more passionate than the English. The set by Jody Sekas suggests a Latin village timelessness, and David Kenworthy’s lighting keeps it sunny. Keili Simmons Marble choreographed the handsome dances, though the recorded music is woefully inadequate. JM Wilkerson designed sound, and costumes are by Megan Johnson, Calder Johnson and Jennifer Trustem.

 Much Ado About Nothing plays weekends at NCRT through April 21.

Additional Notes:

I found this photo labeled Peggy Ashcroft as Beatrice, John Geilgud as Benedick. That looks like it could be Peggy but probably is not John. It looks more like Anthony Quayle, in a prior production that Gielgud directed.

Much Ado About Nothing was apparently written at about the time of Shakespeare's best comedies, including my fave, As You Like It.  The play wasn't performed all that much at first, yet the characters of Beatrice and Benedick caught on immediately, and remain the major source of interest in this play.  W.H. Auden thought the play is not one of Shakespeare's best, "but Benedick and Beatrice are the most lovable, amusing, and good people--the best of combinations--he ever created.  They are the characters of Shakespeare we'd most like to sit next to at dinner."

So it's not surprising that these parts have been popular with actors for centuries.  In the mid eighteenth century, the legendary David Garrick rehearsed the part of Benedick for two months, and then performed it nearly 200 times.  Over the years, Benedick was played to great acclaim by Charles Kean, Henry Irving and John Gielgud, and Beatrice by Ellen Terry and Peggy Ashcroft.  Christopher Plummer's Benedick at Stratford, Ontario in the 50s was a liberating experience for this prominent veteran actor. He writes in his autobiography: "it was playing Benedick that freed me from all outward influence and for the first time I was able to trust in myself."
Oddly, it was not filmed in England or America until the 1993 movie directed by Kenneth Branagh in his Shakespearean cinema prime (between his Henry V and Hamlet), in which he played Benedick to Emma Thompson (his wife at the time) as Beatrice.  People are divided on this film.  Harold Bloom criticizes it for dwelling on the Italian landscape and not on the language.  Others don't like the mix of English stage actors and American film actors.

I loved this movie when it came out, and I still love it.  It is a great introduction to Shakespeare for students, I've found, because it is so clear, and the language is spoken so naturally.  It is a real movie, with one of the most joyfully cinematic openings of any movie, Shakespeare or no.  A great score for the movie and just as music (like another of my maligned favorites, Shakespeare in Love.)  The Hollywood actors were a little jarring at first, but on a recent re-viewing, I saw more clearly how much they bring to the film, especially Denzel Washington.

 Michael Keaton as the comic lawman Dogsberry is the most scorned.  Shakespeare apparently wrote Dogsberry partly from life (a character he met) and mostly as a turn for his company's clown, Will Kemp.  In doing so, he is credited with creating the comical lawman type that figures in so many comedies, including the paradigmatic Keystone Kops.  Keaton, and how he was directed, did seem over the top on my first viewing, but again, I like it much more now.  Branagh's directorial flourishes can seem excessive, but given all the energy and heart in this movie, they are easy to forgive--if even that is necessary.  As Auden (or somebody) points out, the boring parts in a Shakespeare play are essential to their overall success, and probably the same can be said of Branagh's exuberances, including some of the business that Keaton and his cohorts engage in.

I also defend the movie's excisions.  Theatre directors cut from the plays, and because so much can be told by visuals in a movie, Branagh could cut even more.  He cut a few redundant scenes--but also filmed what was offstage in one scene--and he cut lines out of speeches that mostly had obsolete references, intelligible to Shakespeare's audiences but not to us.  That requires skill and taste, and for the small portion  of the script I compared with the play, I thought he did a good job.  (He did cut one funny speech that I was happy to hear at NCRT, though.)

Branagh's Benedick is a contemporary classic portrayal, and I saw not a little of it in Ethan Emmon's reading at North Coast Rep, though Emmons has the better voice. That was very impressive when the movie came out--Branagh's way of making the lines contemporary.  But on repeated viewing, it is Emma Thompson's Beatrice I found most enchanting.  She found the perfect balance between the ways the character is usually played--either as a witty lady, or a shrewish malcontent.  She did not put on airs, but she was innately noble, both happily ironic and a little wounded.  And very lovable.

The play was performed on the London stage last year by another crossover media couple: David Tennant (who also played Hamlet a few years ago) and Catherine Tate (a stage novice but veteran TV comedienne) were paired for a wonderful year on Doctor Who, one of the most popular and iconic series in the UK.  Their lauded 2011 production transposed the action to 1980s Gibraltar, which makes more sense in the UK than it would here.  Transposing the location of any Shakespeare has been trendy for some years now, but especially this play. Reviewing a 1970s production that sets the play in India, critic Michael Billington of the Guardian mused that he'd seen this play also set in "Pancho Villa's Mexico, and even, in one experimental version, Elizabethan England."  Still, Billington liked the Tennant version.  Having seen only the YouTube preview of a much too expensive and apparently unreliable Internet download, I can't comment (except to say that Tennant and Tate clearly can make it funny).  But for me, the very thing that Harold Bloom disdains about the Branagh movie is an aspect I love about it.  The Tuscan landscape is as important a character as any other.

Now a few stray thoughts about the NCRT production.  It was an interesting choice to make the villain's henchman Borachio a drunk, since my annotated version of the play points out that the name comes from the Spanish for drunkard, and was apparently a tip-off to Shakespeare's audiences and for some time after...

The cast was generally good to excellent (at least at times), but while I know casting is a perennial community theatre problem, there was some unfortunate miscasting in this one, compounded by weak direction. The lovely and talented Kim Haile was a great choice for Beatrice, but even though the choice for the interpretation of her character can be justified, it was too broad to move me, and it was too different from Emmons more subtle rendering of Benedick to make an effective match.  But maybe that's changing as the run of the show continues.

 I wrote in my review that in the NCRT production, the Beatrice and Benedick relationship doesn't quite find its heart until near the end.  Some would retort that this is kind of the point, but...I don't really think so.  There has to be something there--some heat, some sexual tension or simply (as in the Branagh/Thompson version) some history of feeling--from the beginning, to make the swift resolution credible.  In that version, the others are clearly tricking them into admitting the attraction that everyone else sees.

 There were also some decisions in this NCRT production that seemed needlessly and unhelpfully vulgar.  I see no virtue into going into all of them, but  beyond the usual need to mime every real and imagined sexual reference in the text, I remain annoyed with the apparent decision to have Beatrice repeatedly emphasize the last syllable of Benedick.  It doesn't work with the character of Beatrice nor with the time period--vaguely the 1940s--of this production.

 As for the 1940s, I don't see what it did for the play, except create costume headaches.  John Gielgud used to judge the period for the play by whether it was credible (for example, he thought you couldn't set this one in the 19th century, given the constricted sexual mores) or--just as importantly--whether the costumes of the period helped or hindered the actors in moving as they should.  High heels etc. didn't seem to help in this one.    

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