Much Ado About Nothingby William Shakespeare. Directed by Julianne Boyd.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Speak low when you speak love."
Advice is freely given in William Shakespeare’s comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" and in Messina, Sicily in 1936 it is taken as often as it ever has been by reluctant lovers and lovers in haste. Claudio, a Lord of Florence, Italy has returned from the war in Abyssinia and wants to immediately marry Hero, daughter of the Governor of Messina with whom he has been in love for a while. His boon companion Benedick, a Lord of Padua, is eager to spar with the haughty beauty Beatrice, Hero’s cousin, whose disdain for the man knows no bounds. Lovers never take kindly to haters, so independently Claudio and Hero try to set up the other couple by proving that each is secretly loved by the other.
That’s the first plot. There are more in this comedy of errors which lead to humiliation, the "death" of a principal player and some rather ugly situations, all of which are resolved before the final choreographed mood-changer in Barrington Stage Company’s first entry into the classical world of Shakespeare. For director Julianne Boyd this is a personal investigation into the tempestuous world of the pre-war country from which her family emigrated; her transfer of the play into such recent times gives the show its unique strengths.
Boyd has a cast and a crew of designers who transcend all. Actors I have not liked much in other shows here become iconic in their roles. Others continue their accumulation of memorable performances and still more are introduced in parts that should be their own for all time. I take the advice of Beatrice in advance and will speak low as I speak lovingly of this fine production of a great comedy.
Gretchen Egolf is a perfect Beatrice, very Katharine Hepburn in both style and delivery. She comes close in this play to the Hepburn of "The Philadelphia Story" and "Keeper of the Flame" in hair, dress, movement and speech. Her Beatrice is athletic, romantic and charming as she berates her potential lover and intoxicates him at the same time with her perfumed breath and her sensitivity. When they dance a sensuous tango at a party it is with a seductive, manly grace that she takes on the duet. Her final scenes with Christopher Innvar (Benedick) provide her with those womanly attributes that Shakespeare writes so well: she is smart, sophisticated, available for domestication and exceptionally loving but never not in control of her situation.
Innvar is a remarkable Benedick. Not a role I would have thought right for him, he takes it in his teeth, like a horse does a bit, and runs with it, sometimes over-the-top but still just right for the moment, and sometimes as a perfect race-horse might when the track is in ideal condition. He seems to understand every nuance that the author presents and he takes the comedy to heart as his director puts him into situations that reduce his manhood to silliness and his ardor to a packet of fallow seeds. Innvar never misses a moment here and by the time he comes to woo his love, he is the picture of romantic perfection. This is the best he has ever been and he is a winner in every way.
Mark H. Dold comes into his own with the role of Don John, the bastard brother of the leader of armies, Don Pedro (played very nicely by David Bishins). Dold moderates the misery of a man who can only aspire and never achieve greatness. As a plotter Don John is no Iago and in showing this Dold makes his villain rather likeable and almost sympathetic. Knowing that his actions will create havoc John in Dold’s interpretation takes a very quiet delight in scheming. The actor makes the character into someone we could want to know and that is what distinguishes this performance; Mark H. Dold compels sympathy for a disquieted soul.
As Hero, Christina Pumariega makes a perfect company debut. She is not a raving beauty and yet she comes across as the most desirable woman ever created. She has a playful quality that turns Hero into a charmer and it is easy to understand her attraction for the men who would have her for their own. She is a Helen who launches ships in her defense but without the classic Greek features; instead she presents a Sicilian beauty, a darker, lusher sort of visage. She is a most welcome presence in this production.
Her beloved Claudio is played by Babak Tafti, seen here last season as the student in "The North Pool." At that time I wrote of him ". . .Tafti takes his character into the shady places and he does this with an animal grace that is mesmerizing." As Claudio he moves beyond this level as the young romantic lover he portrays is drawn into the dark schemes of Don John and his love becomes embittered by faked evidence against Hero. So complicated are the emotions of this man, so convoluted his reactions, and Tafti handles the love vs. violence of Claudio with a fine, deft hand.
One of my favorite of all Shakespeare’s characters is Dogberry, the idiot constable who impresses all of his compatriots with his knowledge of language. The performance of this role by John Cariani is perhaps the funniest I have ever witnessed. Being the comic relief in a play that is already a comedy is no easy task and Cariani seemingly takes this on by creating a new play, all his own, which suddenly intrudes on another play being performed at the same time in the same space. With David Ryan Smith as his partner - and that word takes on a wide variety of visual realizations - and being almost as funny as Cariani the scenes in which they play are as memorable as the lovers’ tango and the dramatic wedding scene played by Tafti and Pumariega.
Gordon Stanley, Kim Wong, David Bishins, Michael Kushner, Emily Taplin Boyd, Ben Cole, Scott Pasha and Scott Aiello all deliver memorable performances in this production and Philip Kerr's Leonato makes the most of the "dramatic" situation in a moving realization. The uncanny feeling of fine ensemble work in a production presented by a non-resident company is extraordinary and due, without a doubt, to the work of the director.
Visually the show is a Hollywood dream of Sicily, 1936. The prewar splendor of the region is presented by set designer Michael Anania who gives us a Messina we could kill to live in. Sara Jean Tosetti handles the costumes like a couturière. Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting design establishes and holds mood and moment perfectly. Will Pickens sound design seemed flawless.
An on-stage music ensemble provide both show and pre-show music deftly. The consist of four fine musicians: Chris Devine, Michael Nix, Franca Vercelloni and director Jeremy Robin Lyons. I can’t imagine this play without them.
That rare combination of tears and laughter mix miraculously in this presentation. Boyd offers her audiences an impeccable realization of Shakespeare’s delicious cocktail of romance, intrigue and the battle of the sexes. It is a perfect theatrical outing, accessible to everyone and a treat as filling as a fine cannoli with a capuccino.
Gretchen Egolf, Christopher Innvar and David Bishins (behind); photo: Kevin Sprague
Philip Kerr, David Bishins, Christina Pumareiega, Babak Tafti; photo: Kevin Sprage
John Cariani, Gordon Stanley, David Ryan Smith; photo: Kevin Sprague
Much Ado About Nothing runs at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA through August 25. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtonstageco.org.