Entertainment » Theatre

Much Ado About Nothing

by Michael  Cox
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Nov 1, 2014
Lenni Kmiec & Amie Lytle in "Much Ado About Nothing"
Lenni Kmiec & Amie Lytle in "Much Ado About Nothing"  

"Ay me! The course of true love never did run smooth."

This bumpy path is especially bad for the couples in Boston Theatre Company's "Much Ado About Nothing"; they must overcome masks, a faked death, their own self-deception, and the illusory powers of Photoshop.

The engaging themes of Shakespeare's late 16th Century romantic comedy are exaggerated gossip, rumors, overheard conversations, and an almost obsessive fear of female sexuality. But what makes this production a success are thoroughly charming performances in an immersive, theatre-in-the-round setting, chiefly those delivered by the play's two most iconic characters, Beatrice (Marge Dunn) and Benedick (Jeff Church).

In the story, as you may recall, four soldiers return from war, reuniting with the women in their lives. Claudio (Quinton Kappel) realizes that he wants to marry Hero (Lenni Kmiec), Beatrice and Benedick continue to protest their disdain for each other, and Don Pedro (Ben Heath) and his half-brother Don John (Robert Cope) scheme to play tricks on each other and their friends.

The "nothing" that the characters become so worked up about are problems that don't exist, "noting" (or gossip and rumors) and "no-thing" (Elizabethan slang for the vagina.)

From the same people who brought us the "Romeo and Juliet" last year at Club Café (where the Montagues and the Capulets were cast as Republicans and Democrats), Director Joey Frangieh has trimmed down and beefed up this production - combining characters and removing scenes then filling in holes with songs and bits from some of Shakespeare's sonnets.

The script has been sculpted so that only eight actors play 24 roles, and instead of having actors take on multiple parts (as is often done with Shakespeare), each actor plays only one character. This streamlined adaptation works well (with some notable exceptions, discussed later), and the show clips along, jettisoning us right into the action with very little introduction or exposition.

Quinton Kappel, Jeff Church & Lenni Kmiec in "Much Ado About Nothing"  

This production combines the role of Leonato, Hero's father, with her handmade and others to form the character of Leonata, Hero's sister. (This amalgamation actually works very well. Amie Lytle plays Leonata like a matronly sibling from the Mid-West. Her long vowels and her flat delivery of the meter set her apart as the most "Middle American" of the performers.)

Marge Dunn as Beatrice has a masterful grasp of the language and a fierce feminine strength that gives her wit and dignity. She has the self-confidence to let the humor come directly from the lines without trying to compensate with histrionics and artificial bluster. It's so refreshing to see an actor hold her own with Shakespeare.

In many ways, Jeff Church's Benedick is the complete antithesis of Beatrice, his love/hate interest. With the farcical faces of Jim Carey, he's thoroughly slapstick and completely comfortable with being goofy, but this actor is so charismatic that he never overplays his hand. It's easy to empathize with Beatrice, because even the most cynical is lured in by Church's magnetism.

Church's charm culminates in a live performance of Nate Tucker's original music. The composer also performs his music live, but not on stage, and some of his songs are quite remarkable. The same cannot be said of the mood music added to the play to let us know that Don John is a tricky villain, (as though we can't figure this out for ourselves.)

The show actually adapts the text to place the action in modern times. Words aren't changed; (there's no, "A car, a car, my kingdom for a car,") but the script has been given a major surgery and sutures are visible. Computers and tablets replace characters in certain scenes; instead of using messengers, people text each other and the texts are read aloud; and Photoshop becomes an actual plot device.

Jeff Church & Marge Dunn in "Much Ado About Nothing"  

In this adaptation, the wily bastard Don John doctors an image to make it look like Hero has had some experience doing porn. While he's Photoshoping, he recites part of one of Shakespeare's sonnets.

This probably wouldn't be so bad if it weren't one of Shakespeare's most popular love sonnets ("When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes.") Not only is this verse out of place in the mostly prose play, but it does sound true to the character. We can't help wondering, "Why is Don John quoting Shakespeare?" This is a love sonnet, not a soliloquy of self-pity.

But the most confusing manipulation happens with the character of Dogberry. A whole scene filled with multiple characters has been combined into one ranting monologue by Liana Asim. As Dogberry, this actress talks to computer screens with large emoticons on them rather than other human beings.

More perplexing: She answers back with all of the emoticon people's lines. We can't distinguish whether she's Dogberry or Verges or one of multiple watchmen. The whole thing is very messy. If you know the dialogue well, you can pick out the conversation. If not, good luck.

Without others to play off of, Dogberry's best moments ("O that he were here to write me down an ass!") are cut, yet still referred to later in the play. It's like a punch line without a set up. And without the strong-arming assistance of her watch, it's completely unclear as to why anyone would give authority to a completely psychotic person in a black beret.

"Much Ado About Nothing" continues through November 2 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to www.bostontheatercompany.org/much-ado-about-nothing.html.


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