New York Shakespeare Exchange’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is straight up sensational – a poppy, neon-infused rollick punctuated by a dynamite cast, exquisite costumes and a host of glorious little details. Right away director Ross Williams sets up his precise (and precisely executed) vision of the Bard’s comedy by introducing Leonato, his sister Antonia and his daughter Hero, all of whom are all glued to devices texting, swiping left or messing around with VR.
Legit Shakespeare scholars who are way smarter than me often point out that in Elizabethan England the word “nothing” in the title of the play would have probably been read as “noting,” as in noting the behavior of those around you. That is to say eavesdropping on what everybody else is up to and commenting on it. If ever there was a 400-year-old play destined to be adapted through the snarky lens of social media, this is it. But back to the details.
In this very opening scene, while we see Leonato, Hero and Antonia consumed by their personal technology, in walks Beatrice, played by Carey Van Driest, with a folded up New York Times doing the crossword puzzle. Immediately, Ms. Van Driest and Mr. Williams signal to us that Beatrice is in the world of the play but not at all of it; that she is an individual who values deep intelligence over fleeting digital fancy.
Anyway the fancy/depth ratio is already pretty out of whack as it is in text for Much Ado. Nominally, this is a comedy, and a very funny one at that, yet I have always found it one of Shakespeare’s cruelest plays. There are tons of detailed synopses available online but basically it is the story of four lovers getting together: Benedick and Beatrice and Claudio and Hero. But on the way to the alter the ingénues get tangled up in deception, slander, manipulation, death threats, and faked deaths – not to mention, despite its frequent romantic progressiveness and strong female characters, enough casual anti-Semitism and misogyny that the ickier parts might as well have been sourced from a comment thread on Breitbart.
Williams and his team have wisely snipped out the nastier passages, but the conflicting tone, particularly Claudio’s need to publicly shame Hero and her eventual forgiveness of him, continues to confound me. At the same time, it is why I can’t take my eyes off this play. Structurally sharp, the play anachronistically follows (or provides the template for) many rules of setup and payoff in contemporary comedy writing. (One example: towards the beginning, Beatrice tells Hero to stop Claudio’s mouth with a kiss to shut him up and at the end Benedick uses that same line back at her.) Sure, there is cruelty and deception in these relationships, but there is cruelty and deception in real relationships. I mean, the course of true love never did just go awesomely, amiright? (That’s a direct quote from Shakespeare, promise.) These are very realized characters, self-aware enough to spot their own baggage. When Benedick finally admits that he is in love with Beatrice and that he wants to be with her, he instantly knows that he’s going to get shit about it from his friends:
I may chance have some
odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me,
because I have railed so long against marriage
Shakespeare scholarisimo Harold Bloom would say that Benedick is “overhearing” himself, or gaining a deeper understanding of who he is by analyzing his own actions – something that characters didn’t really do prior to Shakespeare. In a macro sense, Much Ado functions in much the same way. Here is Shakespeare doing that thing we love him best for, the one where he holds a shiny thing, as it were, up to another thing and then we can really see the thing. (Okay, maybe I am paraphrasing?)
The moral sophistication of Shakespeare’s text is given bracing new context by the choice of director Williams and his designers to situate the play in an ultra-modern digital landscape. Scenic designer Jason Lajka’s stylish arrangement of basic, pixel-like white cubes ignites into vibrant anodic life with the electric pinks and purples of Jason Fok’s lighting design, often further emphasized by sound designer Matt Otto’s pulsing music. Costume designer Elivia Bovenzi attires the performers in a sly blend of fashion-forward military gear and dazzlingly colorful eighties attire, of which the standouts are the winking face on the back of Hero’s hot pink sweater and Antonia’s dangly blouse/blue tinsel necklace combo – an ensemble surely meant to evoke the one she describes the Duchess of Milan wearing at one point.
Even in this overwhelming and gorgeous tableau the production continues to find the very human moments, in large part thanks to the superb cast. Devin Haqq and Ms. Van Driest are tremendous as Benedick and Beatrice. Both performers bring particular nuance and charisma to their key Act 2, Scene 3 soliloquies, when they reverse course and decide to be in love. The degree to which Beatrice has been thrown off balance by this sea change is accentuated by having her deliver her speech while hobbling around in a single high heel shoe, another of the show’s tremendous details.
Likewise, Cory O’Brien-Pniewski and Kim Krane cover the rough terrain of Claudio and Hero’s romance with incredible self-possession; Mr. Pniewski is never better than in his brazen overselling of Beatrice’s passion for the benefit of the eavesdropping Benedick, while Ms. Krane deserves high marks for her turn-on-a-dime doubling as the inept and vaguely Appalachian officer Verges. Sam Leichter also doubles as the villainous Don John and the buffoonish Dogberry, an interesting but very doable combo considering Don John essentially disappears from the text when Dogberry shows up. Mr. Leichter’s Dogberry is an ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it reading of one of Shakespeare’s more straightforward clown roles, but his interpretation of Don John truly elevates the one-note villains into a delightfully anxious mess.
As Don Pedro, Leonato, Borachio and Antonia respectively, RJ Foster, Christopher Randolph, DeAnna Supplee and Amanda Barron all acquit themselves very well and are especially entertaining to track in the large group scenes like the masquerade, which, in another smart detail befitting this fully-wired production, takes place in virtual reality.
NYSX’s production of Much Ado closes at Urban Stages today, but sigh no more – as I understand it will be touring as part of their Intersections program. Anyway: all this amazement can I qualify, so get thee to their website and find out when it’s coming anywhere near you.
New York Shakespeare Exchange‘s production of Much Ado About Nothing will play at Urban Stages through March 5. Visit their website for more information.