Much Ado About Nothing
The Couple in Love, With Their Own Selves
Lean & Hungry Theater, WAMU 88.5 FM Radio, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
Directed by Tonya Beckman
Do Benedick and Beatrice have a back story? Certainly, they have been “in a kind of merry war” for some time and have skirmished on more than a couple of occasions before those we see in the play, but how genuinely deep is their disdain for each other? Beatrice hints that they had at least a fleeting romance once and Benedick broke her heart. Benedick indicates the war of wits is not as merry as others think and displays a genuine dislike for Beatrice at one point (“I cannot endure my Lady Tongue”).
Yet, perhaps the two merely share a trait they see as monstrous in the other: oversized egos. That’s the primary take-away of Lean & Hungry’s radio drama adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a production that has some enjoyable moments though it loses some of the play’s natural sparkle in its presentation.
That may be the fault of the medium—where characters can become confusing to the non-seeing ear and jokes can get buried under vocal clutter—as much as it is that of the presenters. Lean & Hungry uses Shakespeare’s original script, trimmed to an hour, and inserts it into a narrated framework. In this production, Messina is a neighborhood “deep in the heart of New York City,” and the “quaint Italian-style brownstone” belonging to Leonata (yes, the play’s patriarch has become a matriarch) is hosting the company of Don Pedro in a homecoming celebration at the end of World War II. Using this timeframe and setting, Lean & Hungry is on better footing here than it has been in some of its other Shakespeare dramatizations as it recalls its wonderful adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in a speakeasy club in Prohibition-Era Chicago. City socialites juxtaposed with mobsters is an entertaining formula Lean & Hungry has almost perfected, and this production succeeds more on the fun presentation of Shakespeare’s colorful characters than on the performance of the verse (too often delivered in a plodding cadence) or insights into the characters speaking it.
Except, that is, in the portrayals of Benedick and Beatrice. Joe Brack fully embraces Benedick’s egotistical self, not only in his wit-war with Beatrice but in his lording attitude toward Claudio and his confidante air with Don Pedro. Even in his initial courtship of Beatrice he’s self-conscious, taking literally his promise to be “horribly in love with her.” Horribly at it he certainly is. Brack lands the biggest laugh from the live audience when the now-smitten Benedick mimics Beatrice’s voice in repeating her line “Against my will I am sent to bid you come into dinner.” He barely pauses before saying, “There’s a double meaning in that,” and we can see his knowing certainty—totally wrong though it is—coming through Brack’s voice. He also scores a nice moment in the masque. Costumed as Dracula and speaking with the clichéd accent of the Transylvanian count, Brack’s Benedick obviously sees himself as the life of the party, and it’s funny to hear the wind sucked out of his sails when Beatrice slides into her stream of insults. Brack pulls this visual image off through only auditory means.
But, then, this could be a natural response to the performance of Nora Achrati as a Beatrice who is so full of herself she barely lets anybody else get a word in edgewise. Her first line in the play is an insider joke she lays on the messenger, establishing her superior self over not only “Signior Mountanto” (i.e., Benedick) but the ignorant messenger, too. Achrati’s Beatrice even treats the Prince’s marriage proposal as a joke not worth her consideration. With the prince as with Benedick—and as with the messenger and Hero and Claudio and everybody—Beatrice noticeably makes sure she gets in the last word, and Achrati makes this trait even more noticeable as she plays a Beatrice whose world revolves around herself (her costume at the masque, the narrator tells us, is Amelia Earhart).
These readings not only lead to humorous interactions between the two early in the play, it makes for a uniquely funny courting scene later. The “Kill Claudio” sequence is perfectly pitched, Benedick and Beatrice revealing to themselves perhaps for the first time how much they can care for another human being: Beatrice for Benedick and then for Hero, Benedick for Claudio and then for Beatrice. At the play’s climax, when they discover that the others gulled them into loving each other, their “merry war” reignites with as much fervor as we heard in the first scene. “They swore you were almost sick for me”—“They swore you were well-nigh dead for me” they yap at each other, back to their salvos of one-upping the other. When Claudio and then Hero reveal the love letters, Benedick and Beatrice have no choice but to save face, and Brack’s Benedick typically turns his betrothed status into something better than the prince’s bachelorhood. This Benedick (like this Beatrice) has to be the center of his attention.
Claudio (Danny Cackley) and Hero (Tia Shearer) are both giddy young adults who deserve each other. Immaturity is as much a factor in their being ensnared in Don John’s plot as anything the bastard brother or Borachio do (Hero attends the masque dressed as Snow White, “a fitting disguise, indeed” says the narrator). The dour Don John (also played by Brack) sounds like a Mafia hit man, and his cackling at Claudio's punning accusations of Hero during the church scene is a nice touch. Conrad (Cackley) is his marble-mouthed muscle. Other vocal characterizations are a Cyndi Lauperish Margaret (Yasmin Tuazon), Verges (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) as an Italian immigrant, and Constable Dogberry (Brack again) as an Irish immigrant who doesn’t take kindly to being called, as he repeatedly says, “an arse.” When Dogberry claims himself to be “as pretty a piece of flesh as any in Messina” (greeted with disgust by the others in the courtroom), this production reveals how self-centered arrogance may have been one of Shakespeare’s overriding themes of this play. Is there anybody who doesn’t wholly revolve around their own selves in Much Ado About Nothing? Even the friar has a haughty air about him.
Turning Leonato into Leonata works mostly because of the way Tuazon plays her. When Claudio suggests marrying Hero the next morning, Tuazon’s Leonata sweeps in with her “Not till Monday” interjection as a careful mother wanting a bit more time with—and preparation for—her daughter. When Hero is accused in the church of loose behavior, Leonato’s reaction may seem archaically overwrought, but Tuazon brings a mother’s anguish derived from utmost disappointment in her daughter that is touching as well as relevant.
The production’s setting offers a few interesting interpretations, such as the gulling of Beatrice taking place in the beauty parlor where all the neighborhood women gossip. At other times it creates unnecessarily awkward intrusions, such as Benedick calling Beatrice on the phone after he challenges Claudio (and Margaret interjects on the party line to call Beatrice away). Anytime you update this play you run into the problem of its resolution: Leonata ordering that Claudio marry her “niece” as his penance (this production cuts the obsequies at the tomb). We can readily accept Shakespeare’s plot resolution for 16th century Messina, but in 1945 New York City it’s just weird.
Beatrice and Benedick, though, remain timeless and fitting for any era or place. Will they be happy ever after? Well, like the back story of this couple, we’ll never really know the forward story, will we?
July 27, 2012