Shakespeare Repertory

I always find myself laughing harder at the few comic bits Shakespeare uses to lighten up his serious plays than I do at any of the Bard’s comedies. Part of the reason, I’m sure, is that bits like Polonius’s foolish blatherings in Hamlet or the Fool’s bubble-bursting quips in King Lear are a relief from the otherwise relentless darkness of the stories.

In this century of cynicism and disillusionment–when one by one our most cherished beliefs about progress and the moral superiority of Western civilization have been eroded by two world wars and countless smaller ones–Shakespeare’s somber plays are much easier to buy than his lighthearted comedies. To make matters worse, our national sense of humor has been so debased by TV sitcoms that we tend to judge comedies failures if they don’t generate a laugh every ten seconds or so. As a result, all too many productions of Shakespeare’s comedies are so desperate for laughs that they stoop to even the lowest bits of physical comedy to try to “save” the show.

Which is why I find director Barbara Gaines’s considerably more high-minded attempts to make Much Ado About Nothing palatable to a contemporary audience intriguing, if not particularly successful. Where other directors tart up Shakespeare with lots of broad slapstick to try to keep the people entertained while the actors slog their way through the talky wit, Gaines takes a different tack.

She dresses the characters in costumes (designed by Nan Cibula-Jenkins) evocative of a time and place most middlebrow Masterpiece Theatre-watching audiences will identify with more readily than Renaissance Messina–Great Britain just before the First World War. Then she proceeds to fill this intensely verbal play with plenty of eye-delighting stage pictures of the idle classes mindlessly cavorting through endless garden parties and masked balls. The result, unfortunately, is a production so easy on the eyes and so much like a magazine fashion spread that it’s hard not to resent the silly pair of love stories for continually breaking up Gaines’s beautiful tableaux. The actors seem far more comfortable striking poses than they do acting out the story.

This might explain why so many of the performers who shine in Shakespeare Repertory’s other current production, King John, are so disappointing in this one. Kevin Gudahl, for example, who is so charismatic as the Bastard in King John, is rather colorless as Don Pedro. Likewise, Henry Godinez, who adds so much Latin fire to his portrayal of the Dauphin in King John, seems utterly uninterested as Claudio in Hero, the woman he has supposedly fallen for madly at first sight. Nor, for that matter, does Martie Sanders, as Hero, seem particularly attracted to Claudio. Linda Kimbrough and Robert Scogin, as Beatrice and Benedick, generate only slightly more heat than the decidedly cool Claudio and Hero, and they’re not nearly as quick-witted as their characters seem on the page.

The best performances in this production occur among the less important roles. Lisa Dodson, for example, shows in her portrayal of Margaret some of the fire of her excellent Ophelia in Robert Falls’s Hamlet six years ago. Unfortunately, a few fine secondary roles are just not enough.

But the far more devastating problem with Gaines’s production is that the comedy (in which all worthy lovers are eventually united and all villains get their just deserts) is undercut by a strange anxiety, a sense of impending disaster that permeates all but the most farcical scenes. By transplanting Much Ado About Nothing to prewar England, Gaines has, perhaps unintentionally, subverted the meaning of the play, turning it from a celebration of love in peacetime (the play literally begins with an announced end to a war, seemingly at odds with the time and place evoked by the clothing and sets) to a play about a charming but doomed way of life. This melancholy weighs down the play, neutralizing and giving a desperate quality to all the merrymaking.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.