Saturday, June 18, 2016

Mo' Much Ado Mo' Problems

I'm going to throw up a relatively short review, since I don't think anyone has reviewed the joint production of Unit 102 Theatre Company and Leroy Street Theatre of Much Ado About Nothing.  It is playing this weekend and then next week, and that's it.  Several nights have sold out, but it was a thin, but appreciative, crowd last night.  I would definitely encourage more people to make it out.  Details here.

While the Majlis Art Garden wasn't quite as spectacular as I had in my mind, it was an interesting hybrid space.  You are clearly outside, yet covered in case it does start raining.  Not to scare anyone off, but there are small animals in the garden, and one actually scampered across the seating area in the second half.  Virtually all the performance is in a stage area, though Benedict does hide in the bushes (next to the audience) at one point in the play.  Since the outside world was literally locked away, the performance was far more intimate than the usual Shakespeare in the Park (this review does suggest that Love's Labour's Lost is struggling a bit in its setting).  As is typical in many of the comedies, they have musicians and even a bit of dancing integrated into the show.

I thought they did a very good job of the play.  I could see Margaret struggling with the decision to reveal what she knew when Hero is falsely accused.  Unlike in Othello, where it would cost Emilia personally very little to reveal that the handkerchief was not a particularly valid token of dishonor, Margaret would be quite stained to reveal that she had been messin' about in Hero's chambers.  Nonetheless, she is quite the moral coward not to have done so, and it is a little strange that she comes back on and is just bantering with Hero and Beatrice during the period Hero is pretending to be dead.  Maybe she is an expert on going with the flow.  (It is interesting that there still is a fair bit of bantering, particularly between Beatrice and Benedict in the 2nd half of the play, but that is probably Shakespeare's way of hinting that this is a comedy and things will be set right.  That said, for much of this later battle of wits, Beatrice is using her feminine wiles to ensure that Benedict will challenge Claudio to a duel.)

This may be the strongest Benedict and Beatrice I have seen, and it is worth catching the show to see them in action.  Both Claudio and Hero are played by younger, less experienced souls, sort of as a way of excusing their tempestuousness (a la Romeo and Juliet).  What was really quite interesting to me, and something you don't usually get with outdoor theatre, is that they ended with Hero in a particularly pensive mood, perhaps a bit envious of Beatrice finding a more noble mate than Claudio has turned out to be.  Does she really even want to be married to him, even though it was all just a mistake, and he is surely repentant?  She doesn't really say a lot in the last scene, other than to repeat her claim that she is innocent of all charges that had been laid against her -- and she is in a jolly mood when she hands over Beatrice's note saying that she (Beatrice) was enamoured of Benedict.  I think this is a perfectly logical, if slightly downbeat ending, trying to push Much Ado About Nothing into the category of a problem play.  It's certainly not how it is usually played.  If they succeed, there will be very few pure comedies left in Shakespeare's oeuvre...

Of course, nothing can take away from the pure silliness of Dogberry, here played by Chloe Sullivan.  She is quite good, and the role seems a million miles away from the prostitute she played in Red Light Winter last winter.  So again, quite a few reasons to see this show.  It is a bit of a shame that it ran for two weeks only, and interested parties have just a bit over a week left to catch it.

I think it is fair to say that in Shakespeare's day, it would have been fairly difficult to construe Much Ado About Nothing as any sort of a problem play, since not just one but two marriages were soon to be completed and two houses tied together.  Emotional fulfillment only came into the picture secondarily.  Also, as Benedict himself says "The world must be peopled."

Nonetheless, I've already written about how difficult it can be to reconcile today's understanding of marriage and the status of women and several of these plays.  No question the hardest is The Taming of the Shrew, which in some ways has such a meaty role for an overlooked, unlovable character such as Katherine, but the last scene where she revels in her submission is almost entirely impossible to reconcile with such a reading of the play.  Generally, the closest one can come is to play it as though the lines are in fact not totally sincere, but Katherine is putting on a show partly for her own amusement.  As it happens, just the other day, this issue came up in the New York Times.  The Shrew probably would just end up relegated to the bottom of the heap of problem plays aside from the fact that it does offer up these meaty roles and it is so funny (aside from Katherine's speech about submission).  I noted elsewhere that Driftwood will be doing it in Withrow Park this July, and I wish I knew just how they were going to handle this (and whether they would subvert the final message of the play), since I would like to take my son to the show.  In a way, it is amazing that a play over 400 years old can still inspire such different approaches/ideas and even heated feelings.  I am very glad not to be living in a society where hurt feelings are to be avoided at all costs (or even one in which ambiguity (and irony?) must be stomped out) and that we can have challenging plays in our parks.  And with that, I will step aside for a while.

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