Jack O’Brien likes his work, and for that I am profoundly grateful. This Shakespeare in the Park Production of Much Ado About Nothing is a bright shining jewel nestled into the arms of the Delacorte Theater. So nuanced is this production that I could swear I never saw it before.
Now, I realize that Lily Rabe (Beatrice) has been anointed as the best of the bunch, but for my money this production’s center was Hamish Linklater (Benedick). The two are a grand couple of banterers who have to be pushed together like peas on a plate before they will admit that all the banter was bandage for an aching heart.
This is a play about deception and infidelity. While Beatrice has a tongue with a firey tip – and a swagger that reminded me of Barbara Stanwyck on Big Valley – she is considered a little off. It is worrisome when a woman swans around town saying that men are idiots and there is no way she would stoop so low as to love one. It is upsetting to all the men who, having returned from battle, think of nothing but wooing.
Don Pedro (Brian Stokes Mitchell), Claudio (Jack Cutmore-Scott) and Benedick show up in Messina at the home of Leonato (John Glover) who has housed under his roof two young women of marriageable age. Hero (Ismenia Mendes) and Beatrice. Upon seeing Hero, Claudio nearly swoons. He is a babbling fool and is soon granted permission to marry Hero. She doesn’t have a lot to say about this because – well why WOULDN’T she want to b hitched to Claudio??? Duh!
But not so fast – we need a bad guy to give the people in the stalls someone to to jeer at as well as someone cheer for. We get that in the person of Don John (Pedro Pascal), Don Pedro’s half brother, who, with way too much time on his hands, plans to disrupt the intended marriage by breaking Claudio’s heart and destroying Hero’s reputation. WHen he convinces Claudio, Don Pedro and Benedick see what is not so (a shadow in a window thought to be Hero), he achieves his goal. Hero is dumped at the altar, and her life is pretty much over.
To her aid come the men who believe in her – among which her own father cannot initially be counted. They contrive one of those Shakespearian plans – more deception and faked identity – to convince everyone that Hero is dead. That being done we sit back and watch the true colors of all involved reveal themselves. And thanks to the excellent comedic skills of John Pankow as the local bumbling arm of the law, Dogberry, we get to have a few laughs along the way.
Ultimately Hero is cleared – not because of her word, but because a man confessed to the deception. That being accomplished, Beatrice and Benedick can drop the act and fall into one another’s arms – which they do.
The entire production is directed with O’Brien’s cunning eye that keeps a look out for the new and the unexplored. Witness the hilarious plotting scene of Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio. Or the impromptu musical gems scattered like flower petals here and there. Or the opening scene in which the cast, all speaking Italian, reacts to the pre-show announcements that sound like God talking to Moses – in English of course. With the exception of Rabe’s costumes, which are bland and unbecoming in the extreme (Little House on the Prairie anyone?), this production is a treasure box.
Overall, it is Benedick whose fortune we follow most closely. We all know the outcome of course, so to walk with him down his path of triumph, doubt, uncertainty and exuberance is a pleasure indeed. Much of this begins with the writing of course. Benedick is fully formed, and Beatrice is more avenging angel than a woman who will let anyone (even us) in on what she thinks. Rabe has one terrific scene when she declares that if she were a man she would avenger her cousin’s honor that is layered and magical. And her scenes with Linklater are nothing short of delicious. But he is the one pulling the wagon – and we are the better for it.
As well, it was not lost on me that the story is, yet again, about women who are nothing without their men. As we listen to the news and hear of the women sentenced to being stoned because they married outside their faith, or being gang raped on a bus, or kidnapped by the hundreds – is it still okay for us to celebrate plays that reinforce this image?
I know the language is stunning and the intent well positioned. Still – I pose the question.
Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare; directed by Jack O’Brien
WITH: Matt Bittner (George Seacoal), Alex Breaux (a Messenger/Hugh Oatcake), Steel Burkhardt (Balthazar), Jack Cutmore-Scott (Claudio), Austin Durant (Friar Francis/the Sexton), John Glover (Leonato), Hamish Linklater (Benedick), David Manis (Antonio/Verges), Kathryn Meisle (Ursula), Ismenia Mendes (Hero), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Don Pedro), John Pankow (Dogberry), Pedro Pascal (Don John), Lily Rabe (Beatrice), Matthew Russell (Conrade), Eric Sheffer Stevens (Borachio), Zoë Winters (Margaret), and Mr. Bittner, Mr. Breaux, Carisa Cotera, Isabella Curti, Paco Lozano and Mr. Russell (Servants/Soldiers/Lords/Musicians/Members of the Watch).
Sets by John Lee Beatty; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Jeff Croiter; sound by Acme Sound Partners; music by David Yazbek; hair and wig design by Tom Watson; movement by Danny Mefford; music contractor, Dean Sharenow; music director, Nathan Koci; dramaturge, Dakin Matthews; production stage manager, Chris De Camillis; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; general manager, Steven Showalter; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. A Shakespeare in the Park production, presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director. At the Delacorte Theater, Central Park (the park should be entered at 81st Street and Central Park West); 212-539-8750, publictheater.org. Through July 6. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.