Thursday, May 21, 2009

A mixed Much Ado

As I wandered the streets of Roxbury last Saturday night, in search of the Actors' Shakespeare Project's new production of Much Ado About Nothing, I was twice accosted by African-American gentlemen who asked me the following question:

"Are you lost, sir? Would you like a cab out of here?"

No, I replied, I'm not lost, I'm just white. And if I follow that little line of other white people over there, I think I'll find my way to Hibernian Hall, the seemingly Irish (?) redoubt where the gypsy-like A.S.P. has set up camp (guarded by a friendly police officer). This proved to be true, and I was soon sitting with probably the largest group of Caucasians for maybe a square mile (there wasn't a face "of color" in the entire audience), thinking in my silly cracker way how exciting it was to have successfully ventured to Roxbury, of all places, to see theatre. Who'da thunk!

Okay, okay, enough post-racist irony - the ASP is, indeed, to be congratulated for attempting to lure their bobo (i.e., "bohemian bourgeoisie") audience into the wilds southwest of Mass. Ave. Would there were a regular stream of visitors from Harvard to Dudley Square! And actually, Roxbury is looking a bit more spruce than it once did, although upon leaving the theatre I did have to dodge a drug arrest in progress. (Luckily, I wasn't carrying that night.)

But once the curtain went up on Much Ado, thoughts of Roxbury and racial identity were suddenly miles away, as I pondered the amazing fact that somehow Shakespeare had written a play about the marriage of Paula Plum and Richard Snee (both at left), nearly four centuries before either was born. Now that's foresight.

But then that Shakespeare was just amazing, wasn't he. I mean there's no chance that he didn't have the enduring bond between this lovable pair on his mind while scribbling Much Ado, is there? Certainly that's been the gist of the pre-show publicity, and the Globe, for instance, agreed that the play is all about "what mature, complicated love really looks like." Even the "set," such as it is, recalls a wedding reception gone on too long.

But will you hate me if I point out that all of this is bullshit? To be frank, I actually hate me too, because I admire Plum and Snee as much as anyone. But I often felt that, darling as they are, they were sometimes doing a rueful, affectionate fox-trot between me and Shakespeare's play.

For while it's now the vogue to emphasize the backstory of Much Ado's sparring lovers, and their wisdom about marital convention (a wisdom which somehow doesn't extend to their own egos), the truth is these are but grace notes on a theme the Bard sounds again and again in his comedies: the romantic education of the male. Sure, Beatrice is defensive and self-deluded in her emotional stance, but the scales fall from her eyes early on, and pretty much completely. It's Benedick for whom the rest of the plot is essentially constructed: he must learn to abandon not only his own conceit, but a masculine world-view - indeed a whole masculine, militaristic world - to really connect with his beloved. That journey is the spine of the play (particularly its second half), and it's all but missing from the ASP production.

Because, as usual, director Ben Evett has allowed this troupe to get over-involved in minute-by-minute meta-theatrical hijinx. We understand they're working on a shoestring, but I don't see why this means the actors have to keep hammering this home, while somehow congratulating themselves for coming up with some of the dumbest gambits you can imagine. (I can't tell you how many times - when male actors were pretending they had boobs, for example, or were binding their hands with party favors - that I wanted to shake them and say, "Would you just fucking cut it out?") Of course I can't deny the ASP audience eats this schtick up, and it may even be why they actually come to the productions (they don't come to see Shakespeare, they come to see their avatars doing Shakespeare, a different thing entirely). So you just have to wait through those parts, tapping your foot, and hope that the actors will grace us now and again with a little actual drama.

Which they do, intermittently. I felt that Plum was rooted too deeply in Beatrice's earlier disappointment with Benedick, and hence even though she landed all her jokes, she lost the sparkle that is actually the Bard's first sketch of a sensibility that would culminate in Ariel. (There are other such foreshadowings - of Iago, and the climax of The Winter's Tale - to be found in Much Ado.) She also didn't seem to connect much with her cousin Hero (a sweetly poised but slightly bland Kami Rushell Smith), despite becoming wildly protective of her later on. But at least Plum didn't try to dodge the seriousness of "Kill Claudio," and there was, indeed, an admirable depth to her work in the second half of the play. Snee was more problematic. The guy is certainly a comedian - he even pulled out a mike and worked the crowd for Benedick's big soliloquy. But his deadpan near-cynicism never gave a hint of his character as a popinjay, even though that's how he's often described, and he simply didn't tap into any of Benedick's archetypal fears regarding marriage - its sexual straitjacket, its humiliations, the possibility of becoming a cuckold, etc. To be honest, Shakespeare brutally, and bluntly, critiques marriage in Much Ado (and after all, he largely elided his own), but you'd never guess it from this production.

There were other gaps in what often played as a sweet but mixed bag of gags. I'd never cast John Kuntz, for instance, as the debonaire (but inwardly isolated) social broker Don Pedro, and Kuntz hardly convinced me in the part - but damnit, you can't deny the guy is funny. He basically stole scene after scene from Snee, and along with Bobbie Steinbach pretty much chewed the comic scenery while making mincemeat of Doug Lockwood's Dogberry. Alas, Lockwood didn't do any better by the villainous Don John - but then this was another bizarre bit of casting (particularly given that Michael Forden Walker, a natural Don John, was wandering around pretending he had tits). In other supporting roles, Johnny Lee Davenport too often went over the top as Leonato, but Sheldon Best, if he sometimes seemed a little blank in his prose, offered some surprisingly touching readings of his verse. The whole thing at least ended on a shaggy, self-aware, but still amusing high note, with a final slow dance from Snee and Plum. Which led me to internally admit that this is the best production of the ASP season; it's certainly a marked improvement over Coriolanus. And so perhaps it's worth a trip to Roxbury, if not the ends of the earth.

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