Vincent Cardinale directs this quick, seven-show run whose final performance just took place under the stars at Tennis Court # 1. By way of full disclosure, I should mention that this reviewer is also running around Los Angeles doing Shakespearean acting, and last year I played the role of Antonio in the Porters of Hellsgate production of Much Ado About Nothing. So my perceptions may be colored by a familial love of my own peeps and the directorial choices of Charles Pasternak, who runs the Porters. Nevertheless, blessed with the ability to think for myself, I charge forward into the reviewing portion of what I arrogate to myself as my job.
Great show. As it opened, we were told that one of the first-ever performances of Much Ado About Nothing also took place on a tennis court, and this dispelled any oddness about the location though there were distant yet audible parkgoers and distant yet quite audible fireworks in the background; I imagine the open-air Globe itself was host to plenty of London's noise from sausage-sellers, beggars, itinerant tinkers and polecats. No city goes Juliet-like into a temporary coma just because a performance has started; we all took it in stride. The historical note was endearing, and part of what brought us there was a real thirst for connection to the past. This provided an extra strand of it.
The tennis court is big and brightly lit and airy, qualities it shares with the opening scenes of the Branaugh-Thompson 1993 Much Ado. Neither that film nor Shakespeare's play is the most Italian thing on this Earth, but one does want a sunny background on which to paint the story of deception and discovery, and we had it. In an indoor black box, that is much more difficult. The women in SSM's show were all athletic, buzzing with natural vim, and cute as hell, their affluent white tennis clothes amplifying the already potent perkiness, made even perkier by cheerleading choreography and the breezy abundance of Leonato's Messina. Nobody's going to starve in Much Ado; there's war, but it's far off, and the biggest problem people face is how to couple-up without getting slandered into social death. The villain in this drama, Don John, kills with lies, like Iago; this being a comedy, however, the truth comes out before disaster becomes irreversible, and all is well. The odd thing is that Leonato is given a chance to learn the truth even before the reversible disaster occurs: poor Dogberry and Verges try to tell him and he tries to understand them, but the crazystupid cops and the flustered landlord are too socially and mentally distant to communicate ("This learned constable is too cunning to be understood... V.i. 219-220).
John Farmanesh-Bocca is a sweet, strong, amusing Benedick, delightfully ridiculous in his transformation from a scoffing guy's guy to a smitten devotee of his ex-girlfriend, the Beatrice of one lovely Kim Swennen. Cardinale's direction is broader in its comedy than I was expecting, with plenty of investment in ultra-clarity and plenty of anachronistic departures from Bard-World. Big Kanye West dance number. Waterguns. Claudio mourning with an R&B song (the one longeur in an otherwise well-paced romp of a show--yes, he was mourning, but it still felt too slow for me, with a few thick slices of dead air between the lines). Rhett Nadolny's Dogberry was funny and endearing, not nearly so neurologically weird as the Dogberry of Michael Keaton in KB's movie or of my Porters pal Jack Leahy. The Don John of Carvell Wallace was sort of lost on me, blending into the production with a low-key performance that made people smile, fit with the plot, and neither attained nor perhaps attempted much in the way of evil scary evilness.
In fact the one frightening thing in the production was the cold sarcasm of Bruce Cervi's Antonio--and here my own experience in the role may be blinding me to another actor's interpretation. Since the role was (appropriately) cast to an older actor here, he did not seem to be a credible physical threat to the young Claudio whom he taunts (again, that is appropriate), yet this lithe, bespectacled, patrician Antonio showed neither the anxiety and desperation over fighting a much younger man, nor much of the heartbroken outrage over Hero's disgrace, that I associate with the character. Like every reviewer, of course, I was only there for one performance. But it was creepy-- Cervi's Antonio smiled at Claudio throughout the confrontation and seemed very much in control, as though he had goons in his pay ready to leave a severed horsehead in the kid's bedroom or jump him in the dark (and when he said "come follow me, boy, come, Sir Boy, come follow me," why wasn't he going anywhere?). The prospect of an affluent Yale man (as I mentioned, the show opens with the cast in tennis outfits, including the effeminate yellow cardigan that America's GHWB class wears to say "my money will kill you") smiling while making physical threats he can't personally carry out, is way scarier than a big guy with muscles.
Ross Britz played Hero's suitor well. Much Ado has two comic strata with a layer of semi-tragedy in the middle, and it seems to me that the choice in this role is whether to go tragic when things suck for you, or just tough it out till the comedy returns; I felt Mr. Britz had done the latter; I did not feel as if I was in the presence of a real wound. The actor who did choose that course (to engage in tragic acting when the play appears to turn tragic, even though that turn is temporary) and did manage to pull it off--nearly stealing the show, but for the sass and sheer female power of Swennen's Beatrice--was Tim Halligan's Leonato. Bravo.
I'll close with kudos to Dan Kucin, whose 2008 Coriolanus I reviewed in this blog. His Don Pedro left relatively unexplored the heartbreaking potential of "Will you have me, lady?" But that sacrifice made sense, since Kucin seemed just as young as his Beatrice here; if Don Pedro is played as some 15 or 20 years her senior, then you can get people in the throat by showing the older man trying a final shot at bliss and gracefully failing (as Patrick Saxon did so beautifully in the role last year). Instead, Kucin's Don Pedro was lighter, more pervasive; he held the whole show together, pleasantly piloting the comedy forward and seeming to host it all, as though Leonato were just one private householder but the Don were the spirit of the country wherein such things happen -- reputations are destroyed and restored, justice is administered by hapless illiterates, and the world is peopled.
Apparently we will be given a production of PERICLES soon. I look forward to it.