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When comedy runs amok, ‘Much Ado’ is nearly undone at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Submitted by on Jun 20, 2012 – 11:34 pm

Review: “Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival through Oct. 27 **

By Lawrence B. Johnson

STRATFORD, ONTARIO – If poor old Macbeth was having a rather bad day when he complained that life is a lot of bother about nada, one might suggest that director Christopher Newton echoes that sentiment all too earnestly in his oddly made production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

It isn’t really “nothing” that befalls hapless Hero, the innocent girl who is so astonished at the unwarranted stain cast upon her character – by her bridegroom’s egregious accusations, at the altar! – that she faints dead away. All this occurs amid great fuss, consternation and umbrage: much ado. But the whole mess is amiss because Hero (Bethany Jillard) has done nothing.

Yet she suffers greatly. If we can’t believe in her unspeakable affront, if we can’t take that moment in the comedy very seriously, the play loses its orientation – in every sense, its center of gravity – and thus its sharpness and plausibility as a mirror of human affairs.

But the way the wedding blow-up is played at Stratford, with the ever-sniping Beatrice (Deborah Hay) and Benedick (Ben Carlson) spinning their alarmed reaction into more cute jibes and jabs, the audience is laughing right through a tragic pass that rivals the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet” for heartbreak.

It is the final miscalculation for Hay, whose Beatrice, though airily amusing, bears a nervous, even addled quality that veils the character’s exceptional intelligence – a wit and intellectual presence equal to Benedick’s. From the start, one can scarcely discern the sober, rational Beatrice in Hay’s flighty aphorisms. Thus the deliciously barbed exchanges between these two avowed anti-lovers decline, at least on her side, into the flippant one-liners of a TV sitcom, right down to the overplayed mugging.

Such caricature might even work if Hay reined it in for the wedding debacle. But just enough of her histrionic edge remains to send viewers the wrong message. Beatrice is appalled at the charges of wantonness hurled into Hero’s face, and she appeals to the soldier in Benedick for redress: Find Hero’s contemptible bridegroom Claudio (Tyrone Savage), challenge him and kill him. She is not joking. No one but the audience is laughing.

Assuming preview audiences reacted similarly out of joint, one can only wonder why director Newton didn’t retune Hay’s pitch to banish any hint of drollery. When Beatrice fumes, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat (Claudio’s) heart in the market place,” she is seething. But it comes across as a laugh line.

Carlson’s Benedick, on the other hand, is both a model of soldierly grace and craftily parrying wit. It’s when they’re apart that these warring wags most resemble each other – when their friends set them up separately to think each is madly in love with the other. Both Carlson and Hay bring down the house with their antic efforts to secure a better eavesdropping spot, to hear the amorous reports being telegraphed for their delectation.

For the rest, the greatest rewards come from James Blendick’s patrician and good-humored Leonato, Hero’s father whose heart cracks upon report of her corruption, and Juan Chioran’s princely Don Pedro, who brings Hero and Claudio together only to be duped into her general damnation. Richard Binsley’s murky pass at the befuddled, malaprop-prone constable Dogberry strays wide of the mark. Less haste might have produced a far funnier result. And as dastardly villains go, Gareth Potter offers a rather feckless version of Don John, the perpetrator of Hero’s defamation.

Ah, yes, I nearly forgot: This production sets the play in Brazil. Why, I have no idea. The notion does allow for some exotic dance numbers, and designer Santo Loquasto’s military uniforms are quite handsome. The many splashes of piano music by half a dozen Brazilian composers also enhance the affair. Shakespeare’s adaptable comedy lends itself to such a do.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: An astonished Beatrice (Deborah Hay) eavesdrops on friends claiming that Benedick is in love with her. Descending: Ben Carlson as Benedick, Juan Chioran as Don Pedro and James Blendick as Leonato. Below: Benedick (Ben Carlson, right) listens in amazement as Claudio (Tyrone Savage) and Don Pedro (Juan Chioran) spin a tale about how Beatrice loves him. Bottom: The company dances at the wedding of Hero and Claudio. (Photos by David Hou)

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