MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

What Fire in the Ears: Much Ado c. 1953

Jennifer Lee Taylor as Beatrice and Matt Shimkus as Benedick; photo by John Ulman

Jennifer Lee Taylor as Beatrice and Matt Shimkus as Benedick; photo by John Ulman

Linguists like David Crystal are fond of pointing out that shifts in pronunciation over the centuries cause modern audiences to miss out on some of the key puns and subtexts in Shakespeare’s plays. The claim that “nothing” and “noting” were all but indistinguishable in Elizabethan English is a case in point. I don’t know who first observed that “Much Ado About Noting” might be a far apter title for Shakespeare’s perennially popular comedy of misalignments realigned, but it’s become a widespread idea by now.

Certainly the play’s momentum is driven by acts of noting, of hearing or seeing things that cause perceptions to be changed dramatically. Most of these eavesdroppings are intentionally stage-managed by other characters – for benevolent if somewhat mischievous purposes (Benedick and Beatrice being led to believe they are the object of each other’s affection) and for nefarious ones (the framing of Hero as unfaithful).

What I find most striking about Seattle Shakespeare’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing is how gullible the main characters prove to be. A good portion of the comedy in the Beatrice-Benedick stand-off arises from the exaggerated language both use to express their mutual disdain – with Beatrice scoring more stinging zingers in Jennifer Lee Taylor’s arch, glib-as-a-movie-starlet delivery. Yet it doesn’t take much trickery to soften them up and make the pair willing to thrust their necks “into a yoke” same as all the rest.

Justin Huertas as Balthasar, Jim Gall as Don Pedro, Jay Myers as Claudio, and Peter A. Jacobs as Leonato; photo by John Ulman.

Justin Huertas as Balthasar, Jim Gall as Don Pedro, Jay Myers as Claudio, and Peter A. Jacobs as Leonato; photo by John Ulman

More tellingly still, Claudio reverses his Prince Charming poses even more readily than he’d pressed his lightning-fast courtship of Hero. She, in turn, is just as content to have the hot-head back after he’s been compelled to “note” her fake funeral.

All this manipulation and puppet-like flexibility can make Much Ado seem pretty arbitrary. The fundamental problem Shakespeare’s comedy poses for the performers is that it nestles a potential tragedy at its core. The notions of love that the two main couples hold on to, imagining they represent the real thing, must be put to the test; they have to enter crisis mode before any genuine change can take place.

Merely “noting” appearances or trying to preempt disappointment is a passive stance, and it can’t substitute for experience. It’s one thing for this testing to take the form of obstacles – standard procedure in comedy – but to be presented as the nightmare which erupts at the play’s center is deeply unsettling.

Hero (Brenda Joyner) rejected; photo by John Ulman

Hero (Brenda Joyner) rejected; photo by John Ulman

Or…maybe that’s just making much ado about nothing after all. Maybe the play really should be enjoyed for its witty slant on romance and friendship triumphant, served up with abundant linguistic virtuosity (and a virtuosic reversal of all that when it comes to the malapropic snares in which Dogberry gets entangled). As directed by George Mount, artistic director of Seattle Shakes, this production doesn’t show much interest in digging beyond that, but it still adds up to a pleasurable performance for the most part.

The production’s design elements are a particular attraction. They effectively translate the cheerful Mediterranean clime of Shakespeare’s Renaissance Messina to a tony seaside resort in 1953, with sailors coming home from the (presumably Korean) war, now ready to relax and get back to the pleasures of life. Craig B. Wollam’s elegantly evocative set, Roberta Russell’s sun-kissed lighting scheme, and the delightful period details of Doris Black’s costumes work together to reinforce this background.

Seattle Shakes is also embarking here on the first of two collaborations this season with Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra: Michael Brockman composed music for the songs Shakespeare embeds in the play. The jazz ensemble pre-recorded this incidental score. Justin Huertas (Balthasar) does double duty as the resort’s Sinatra-smooth entertainer and also sings a lovely threnody at the tomb of Hero before her “resurrection.”

Dogberry (David Quicksall) and crew; photo by  John Ulman

Dogberry (David Quicksall) and crew; photo by John Ulman

These elements so successfully evoke a concrete sense of place that it seems to encourage some of the cast to adopt a looser, more-relaxed style vis-a-vis Shakespeare’s language – as if to match the “realism” of the setting. Taylor’s Beatrice and Matt Shimkus as Benedick stand out not only for their engaging interactions, spinning off each other’s whip-snap repartee, but for their attention to the textures and rhythms of their words. And Peter A. Jacobs brings a suave edge to Leonato as the entitled party-giver while remaining authoritative in his speech.

As Hero and Claudio, on the other hand, Brenda Joyner and Jay Myers tend toward blandness, failing to voice the different registers of their language. Myers also remains too much the nice guy who’s been duped to give his final transformation its full effect. Especially flat is the one-note resentment displayed by Nick Rempel as the scheming villain Don John.

Noah Greene layers a Fonzie-ish attitude on the rascal-for-hire Borachio, who is the first in the play to set off its chain-reaction of conversations overheard. Most of these are staged, but he chances on Claudio’s spontaneous confession of his love for Hero. And by the play’s symmetry, it’s when Borachio is overheard by chance bragging about his nasty deed that the solution to the crisis is introduced. But before everything can be untangled, the night watch set up by Constable Dogberry (David Quicksall) – who do that bit of overhearing – restore the comic tone that’s so suddenly been sucked out of the play with Hero’s slander. This layer was, to my taste, the least successful, too reliant on extraneous gimmicks at the expense of the hilarity already there in the language.

When all is restored in the finale (the captured Don John notably awaiting his punishment offstage, to be dealt with later), this production infuses an infectious joie de vivre that makes this Much Ado about something after all.

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by George Mount, continues through November 17, 2013, at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center. Tickets online.

(c) 2013 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: review, Shakespeare, theater

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