Saturday, March 23, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing: Inconceivable Futures

 "Some cupids kill with arrows. Some with traps."

With barbs and boasts and scorn and sarcasm, Shakespeare's notorious wit warriors, Beatrice (Maggie Siff) and Benedick (Jonathan Cake) take swings  at each other in love and in hate in the Theatre for a New City's production of Much Ado About Nothing.  Smartly staged by Arin Arbus, the production captures a time in Italy before World War I where battle weary soldiers finally allow themselves to contemplate their future and in that optimism fall in love.  In a garden with crisp leaves beneath the audiences feet, a garden swing that emulates the back and forth of our leading players, and under the gentle shade of a billowing tree, our story unfolds.

Entertained by Don Leonato (Robert Langdon Lloyd), soldier Claudio (Matthew Amendt) falls for Leonato's daughter Hero (Michelle Beck).  Claudio is teased mercilessly by his friend in arms Benedick (Cake) for falling prey to a woman's charms. Benedick has sworn off marriage.  He has become accustomed to trading insults and volleys with Leonato's niece Beatrice (Siff) who herself sees no value in men or marriage. In suitable revenge to their protestations against love, their friends and family conspire to convince Beatrice that Benedick loves her and vice versa.  Claudio intends to marry Hero but before he does he is tricked into believing she is unchaste. He slanders her at their wedding and Hero fakes her own death and is reborn when the truth is revealed.

Both Beatrice and Benedick have their lives held up to a mirror by their friends and families, but what is reflected back is not the merriment of their wit but the harm that denying another's love would have.  When confronted with hurting someone, truly wounding someone, neither wants to be the villain.  Essentially it is all fun and games until someone loses their heart.

We're it not for the seriousness of Claudio's accusations perhaps a flirtation between Beatrice and Benedick would not have become something more serious. But when Beatrice's family is attacked Benedick rises to her aid.  Beatrice is powerless to do anything to punish Claudio for his slander.  She shouts with impotent rage,"Were I a man!"  Benedick choose love over loyalty to his fellow soldiers and agrees to fight his friend in Beatrice's stead. This sacrifice, this honest truth shifts the battle between Beatrice and Benedick from a war of words to a detente of respect.  In these dark hours, contemplating a life without love, children and permanence, Beatrice and Benedick forge an unexpected bond.

The tone shift in the play, from wild repartee, to serious grief is a challenge. But this production remarkably makes it across that bridge.  Of course, much credit goes to Cake and Siff. Siff is stronger in the dramatic portions of the play than the comedy.  But she keeps up with the remarkable Cake whose boundless energy and impish spirit gives way to profound gravity.  His athletic eavesdropping scene is worth the price of admission alone.  Of course the real challenge is believing any woman could resist his charms in the first place--he's the sexy bad boy we'd all love to trade insults with if we were guaranteed a ride in the garden swing with him when the battle is over.

Cake offers the rare Benedick whose character contradictions make sense--we see him weigh his past life as a solider against a future he never thought he would have.  His protestations against marriage come then as a defense against a life that was not to be his.  Opening himself up to the idea, it is less radical a departure from his previous position, and more a peeling back of his defenses and false bluster to his true nature. It's an impressive and enlightening performance. 

I found Michelle Beck's speech as Hero talking about Beatrice's shortcomings to be quite powerful.  Beck seems truly pained as Hero speaks of her cousin's character-- how Beatrice's scorn can be dismissive and even cruel.  Hearing her loving cousin speak of her shortcomings, makes Beatrice's motivation to change less about becoming someone else for a man, but of being more honorable--in a story where honor and villainy are central.  It's another in the many smart directing choices here.

I found the rest of the ensemble serviceable and I quickly forgot the dragging Dogberry scenes when Beatrice and Benedick returned to the stage.

Cake and Siff open up the text and offer fantastic interpretations of Beatrice and Benedick.  With those performance, the insightful direction, the simple but expressive set, this a production you should not miss.   

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