Volume III, Issue II Summer 2004

'Much Ado About Nothing' a delightful riff on male foolishness

Shakespeare takes on jealousy in popular comedy

By Lucy Komisar


Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by David Esbjornson

The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater
Entrance Central Park at West 81st Street & Central Park West or 79th Street at Fifth Avenue

This is one of the liveliest "Much Ado's" I have seen. Keeping in mind that one needs a time and venue where a woman's suspected non-virginity before marriage could provoke the husband-to-be to break the whole thing off, director David Esbjornson's choice of turn-of-the-century Italy is close enough. Plus it allows him to inject a bit of entertaining Italian opera as well as nuns in habits, Italian flags and masks in the style of the Italian art style known as "Futurism." Not to mention accordion players greeting the troops and some American accented Italian: "believ-a me!"

The real charmer of the piece is Jimmy Smits, who is as wide-eyed and tough guy a Benedick as you want to see. He segues smoothly from the cynic to the love-smitten. Esbjornson gives him some over-the-top bits, including a slapstick falling down a well in the garden while he's listening to his "friends" feed him the invention that Beatrice is mad for him. One of them nonchalantly throws orange peels down the well where Benedick is floundering.

Much Ado About Nothing
Jimmy Smits and Kristen Johnston
Photo by Michael Daniel
Okay, here's the story if you've forgotten: Benedick, the eternal bachelor, just home from the wars, is paired with Beatrice (Kristen Johnston), the eternal tough lady. They joust and parry and, with the help of their friends, fall in love. The parallel story, which is routinely less interesting, is about Hero (Elisabeth Waterston), daughter of the noble Leonato (Sam Waterston, her real father), and another returning soldier, Claudio (Lorenzo Pisoni). They quickly fall in love and are betrothed, but the marriage is derailed when the evil Don John (Christopher Evan Welch) sets up a phony tryst to be viewed in the lady's window between the putative Hero and a scurvy fellow. Except it's the lady's maid and her boyfriend, not Hero. There follows typical male fury, jealousy and disaster.

The theme of the play seems to be male foolishness. The ladies are more together. Beatrice, for example, is a cynic who might take on this swain, Benedick, but really seems not to take too seriously what's going on. Why do I think she's a New Yorker?

Don John, in black shirt and striped brown pants, is curiously a rather fey villain. Another Esbjornson first, since this fellow is usually pretty macho. His bad guy buddies wear gangster-style gray pin-striped suits, black shoes and spats.

A delightful cameo is Brian Murray's Dogberry, the sheriff in red hat and epaulets and wonderfully Malapropian phrases who – pulled into the scene in a boat as if from a Venetian canal – discovers the plotters in spite of himself.

Too over-the-top is Sam Waterston as Leonato, Hero's confused, anguished father. When he starts emoting, he seems like a noisy volcano (Vesuvius?) that no one can put out.

The major problem with the production is that you can't really believe that Beatrice and Benedick really love each other, even after their defenses have been destroyed by well-meaning friends. Nor Hero and Claudio, for that matter.

So, suspend belief. It's still a delightful production.

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