David Daniel, Colleen Madden, and Eric Parks in Much Ado About Nothing
  • Carissa Dixon
  • David Daniel, Colleen Madden, and Eric Parks in Much Ado About Nothing

American Players Theatre is a place of qualified pleasures, starting with the fact that a Chicagoan has to drive four hours through interstate hell to enjoy them. Located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, about an hour west of Madison, the 35-year-old, Shakespeare-centric company sits on a hill amid rolling farmland—but you’ve got to trek to the top of that hill to enter the main amphitheater. The amphitheater itself is surrounded by great old trees and open to the stars—but you’d better douse yourself with DEET before daring to spend an evening there. And don’t forget your umbrella, just in case.

This summer, Much Ado About Nothing constitutes another of APT’s qualified pleasures. Like a lot of the Bard’s so-called romances—The Merchant of Venice, with its Jew baiting; The Tempest, with its manic-depressive wizard who goes around enslaving people (not to mention sprites and mooncalves); Measure for Measure with pretty much everything that goes on in it, from beginning to end—Much Ado is charming, funny, and just a little bit horrifying to contemporary American sensibilities.

It’s the collision of justice and gender that makes the play feel so uncomfortably anachronistic.

Newly returned from a military campaign, gentleman soldiers under the command of the princely Don Pedro put up at Messina, Sicily, and start pairing off with the marriageable ladies there. Benedick, the company joker, has a sparring relationship with the even quicker-tongued Beatrice; Claudio falls truly, madly, deeply for Beatrice’s more conventionally gifted cousin Hero.

All that really stands in the way of bliss for Benedick and Beatrice is their famous mouths, so often employed in debunking not only each other but the whole notion of marriage. Claudio and Hero, on the other hand, are victims of malign forces: Inasmuch as Don Pedro brought the pair together, the don’s “plain-dealing villain” of a bastard brother, Don John, sees it as his mission to pull them apart. He devises a plan to make everyone believe that Hero is a two-timing slut.

And it works only too well. Claudio falls so completely for Don John’s slander that he goes beyond merely breaking up with Hero. He takes the trouble to humiliate her. On their wedding day. During the ceremony.

Shakespeare having tipped us up front that the ado is about nothing, there’s no harm in telling you that Don John’s machinations are foiled. Yet all’s not necessarily well that ends well, at least from a contemporary point of view. I saw the play with friends who got on their feminist haunches about the fact that Hero (a) is forced literally to play dead in order to weather the calumny in which her fiance so energetically takes part, and (b) sweetly accepts Claudio back when, no thanks to him, she’s exonerated. Not even his willingness to submit to a lifelong penance satisfied my friends.

Personally, I thought they were missing the point. Or rather, rejecting Shakespeare’s big point for what I took to be a smaller one having to do with grievance and equivalence. What seemed important to me was the fact that Hero’s feigned death and real return recapitulates the Christ narrative, not merely in terms of her personal suffering and redemption but as a model for marriage. “When I lived I was your other wife,” she tells Claudio by way of revealing herself. “And when you loved, you were my other husband.” The moment is about compassion, forgiveness, and cleansing for all; about confidence in the possibility of learning and the need to insist on love. As someone who’s been married a long time, I find that irresistible.

APT’s production, also: irresistible. Bugs, rain, uphill slogs, interstate traffic, and ideological uneasiness notwithstanding, the show is well worth seeing.

I’ve taken up so much space discussing Hero and Claudio that you might suppose they’re the core of the play. In fact, they’re the plot, which isn’t quite the same thing. Much Ado‘s actual, beating heart is the courtship of Beatrice and Benedick. It’s a Tracy-Hepburn sort of affair, and Colleen Madden and David Daniel do a great job of evoking its tense verbal thrills. More, they get at its occasionally harrowing dynamics, Madden’s Beatrice being much the sharper and crueler (even savage) of the two while Daniel’s Benedick comes off as a bit of an oaf despite his military prowess, attempting to use his comic wit to ingratiate himself with his comrades. Under David Frank’s emotionally nuanced direction, each of them arrives at a stark moment when the limitations of the social persona he or she has adopted become crushingly apparent.

Still, this is a romance. If Beatrice and Benedick feel imprisoned at times, they also know liberation. And so may the audience: On opening night, when the play ended and the stage went black, we could all look up into the clear night sky and find the unqualified pleasure of endless stars.

Much Ado About Nothing continues through October 5, in repertory with Romeo and Juliet, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and G.B. Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma. At the Touchstone Theatre (smaller, lower down the hill, and fully enclosed) the offerings include David Mamet’s American Buffalo, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, and Euripides’s Alcestis as translated by Ted Hughes. More at americanplayers.org and by calling 608-588-2361.