"Nothing" is Elizabethan slang for a piece of poontang. When Shakespeare titled his play "Much Ado about Nothing," it was a dirty and very funny joke. If you got it, that is.
Many of the jokes in this high comedy are similarly encrypted. A scholarly reading of this play is a barrel of laughs, but some of the jokes are so deeply buried and so dependent on an encyclopedic Elizabethan knowledge that they will fly right over a modern audience’s head.
Karen Magaldi recognized this in her directing and picked the right battles to fight. For the jokes that could be understood by the audience with the right beats, she made sure the actors delivered them so they were palatable. As for some of the higher humor, which the audience probably wouldn’t be able to get anyway, she let the actors rush through to the next deliverable joke.
The play gets off to a rocky start, because it opens with many of those high comedic lines that would be better to throw away, rather than try to help the audience understand. Unfortunately it leaves us wondering who all the characters are and how to tell them apart. This is complicated further as the cast expands when Don Pedro and his men arrive, wearing matching outfits.
Add to these difficulties an apple. Ina Strauss’ Beatrice, who seems to have a good handle on some of the most difficult lines of the play, eats an apple in the first scene with Benedick. Maybe this is a personal challenge, in order to convey high comedic lines with a handicap. But it made understanding more difficult at the expense of a minor character choice.
Phillip Meyer is jester-turned-lover Benedick, but does not let those two characteristics overlap. When he was a jester, he jested, and when he was a lover, he loved. The richness of seeing these two clash was absent, as was any movement of his feet. Meyer’s boots seemed to have been coated in super glue before the performance, and his stationary delivery suffered from it. When he did move, it was usually hilarious, either because of the joke that needed movement, or the sudden richness that a simple move added to his delivery.
Meyer’s delivery just didn’t work with his boots. He was very deadpan and never found his own jokes funny. If he had been a pacer, this would have worked, for he would have no need to laugh at his own stream of thought. But he most often soliloquized directly to the audience, instead of to himself, and his stillness lent him a formality that worked against his humor.
His lover Hero, played by Carolyn DeLorenzo, had great projection. – almost to a fault. In scenes with minor characters we would alternate from leaning forward to hear the timid words of the lady-in-waiting, to sitting back as Hero’s monotone boomed over us.
We got a wonderful reprieve whenever the villains entered, led by Andrew Slac’s malevolent Don John. After scenes of confusion, here were solid characters the audience could grasp onto. Also refreshing was to see Slac and Andrea Roys’ Conrad actually move – they used different levels, they paced when they thought out loud and were interesting to watch instead of just to hear.
A new intensity was reached with the hilarious entrance of Luke Bruckert’s Borachio. His fishnet shirt and wild yells proclaimed that suspicions about the villains being S&M leather freaks were correct, and these villains would do something crazy.
But the promise was not delivered. Bruckert plays his villain as a remorseful, fallen hero at his confession, bereft of all the malicious glee that had consumed him in the beginning. In addition to being inconsistent, it came off flat. There was a nod to the whole malevolence idea, in a convention break at the end where Don John got in a maniacal laugh during the final dance. It was funny, but wasn’t a big enough payoff for the extreme difference between the villains and the heroes.
There were authentically Shakespearean conventions in this play, which was commendable. Some had an excellent modern twist, like the techno-breaks in the masque dance. Others were merely nice, like the recorder music to entertain the nobles.
My favorites were the clowns. Steven Brian’s Dogberry led a troupe of Commedia-style servants, always falling asleep, garishly costumed. They came from a different world than the nobles, as a clown comes from a different world than the rest of us. And while their clowning wasn’t particularly good, it was still clowning, and belonged in a Shakespeare show. Many productions will take a step or two in that direction, but I applaud Magaldi for fully taking that path.
This production definitely has its ups and downs. Good set, bad costumes. Good actors, bad actors. Good convention beaks, bad movement. The good jokes make you laugh, and the bad jokes – they go over your head anyway. The ups outweigh the downs, and this is an enjoyable show to see.