A (mostly) joyous romp: Much Ado About Nothing at the Folger

November 18, 2009 at 11:41 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

We’re in the Trinidad neighborhood of Washington DC. Residents are making preparations for the Caribbean Carnival, a yearly festival. Against this backdrop, the fate of two couples – Hero and Claudio, and the ever-warring Beatrice and Benedick – plays out. There’s a whole host of secondary characters on hand to liven up the action.

In the program notes, director Timothy Douglas states that he wanted the female perspective in Much Ado About Nothing to be given its proper weight. In addition, he was looking for an effective way to tie the production to the Washington DC of the present era:

“While I give the men of this cast their due props, I believe even they would acknowledge that the talents of  their women in this production inspire much of the ado, which honors Shakespeare, the dance of love, the Caribbean community, and the urban diversity that makes up metropolitan DC.

As is to be expected with Shakespeare, tragedy – or at least, the potential for tragedy – is woven into what is essentially a comic scenario. Outraged by word of Heros’ infidelity, Claudio repudiates her on their wedding day. Inevitably, Claudio is made to pay for his rash rejection of a good and blameless woman: information is given out to the effect that Hero has died, her heart broken by the cruelty of her erstwhile beloved. This intelligence happily proves false, but not before Claudio has  been suitably chastened.

(Here is yet another frequently utilized trope of Shakespeare’s. I was reminded of  The Winter’s Tale, in which the supposedly deceased Hermione, initially appearing  as a life-size statue, is reanimated and steps back into the land of the living.)

This is the darkest moment in what is essentially a sunny play. The sparring of Beatrice and Benedick is never anything we’re expected to take too seriously; we know how it will end. (This is one of my favorite fictional set-ups: two people fight and fight and then they give in to the inevitable and get radiantly married. One of my favorite examples of this paradigm can be found in Crocodile on a Sandbank, the delightful first entry in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series.)

I was reminded of the need, in contemporary Shakespearian productions, for the actors to signify with inflection and gesture the obscure meaning of some of the play’s lines. Most of the time, though, at least where this play is concerned, this was not necessary. Here, for instance, is an exchange that elicited knowing laughter from the audience:

Don Pedro: I think this is your daughter.

Leonato: Her mother hath many times told me so.

I particularly enjoyed Doug Brown in the role of Leonato. The acting in general was up to the Folger’s usual high standards. I also want to single out Alex Perez as Dogberry. He had us in stitches! I’d forgotten what a treat it is to see a natural comedian give full scope to his gifts.

Rachel Leslie as Beatrice and Doug Brown as Leonato

Alex Perez

I remember studying Much Ado About Nothing decades ago at Goucher College. It was on the syllabus of a course in Shakespeare’s comedies, and our professor was the wonderful Brooke Pierce. I distinctly recall his pointing out to us the frequency with which characters spoke of “noting” the statements and actions of others. The play’s title, he observed, could almost have been “Much Ado About Noting.”

The production concludes with an exuberant wedding scene, at the end of which the performers danced down the center aisle and out into the lobby.

And that was it! I half expected to catch sight of them there as we were exiting the theater, but they were nowhere to be seen…

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Much Ado About Nothing is running until November 29. My suggestion: Hie thee to the Folger and see it!

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