I can’t think of a better antidote to losing the sunshine when you leave work than to head to the Folger to see its vibrant production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Once inside the theater you’ll feel instantly transported back to summer.
Setting Shakespeare’s “Much Ado” during our own DC Caribbean Carnival may at first seem like a random decision, but it’s hardly that. The play’s core theme revolves around masking and unmasking identity. Characters intentionally hide their true selves and motives from others, mistaking the identity of others both figuratively and literally. Perhaps not in such an obvious way as other Shakespeare plays – but “Much Ado” is more mature, tackling the complexities of relationships. Despite plumbing these depths, it also manages to have some hysterical fun.
Former lovers Benedick and Beatrice fight out their mistrust and pain with biting sarcasm and wit. Their knowledge of each other’s faults is stronger at first than of each other’s strengths, and it’s their journey of mutual discovery to love and respect that makes this one of the most loved Shakespearean comedies. Contrast their relationship with the callow puppy love of the younger Claudio, Benedick’s protege, and Hero, Beatrice’s cousin – two lovers whose lack of knowledge about each other’s natures is the catalyst for some dirty dealing by villian Don John. Add in some well-meaning friends and relatives who manage to stir the pot for both good and bad, and you have a journey to teach everyone a little bit about love.
But does the setting work? Absolutely. The minute Claudio came in as a DC bike cop, I was sold.
The Prince’s Men are now police officers, and it works brilliantly with Benedick. Howard W. Overshown perfectly portrays that rough-and-ready neighborhood cop, at ease both with a beer and a brawl, without losing the honor at his core. He’s got the audience in the proverbial palm in every monologue, drawing you into his private world as he slowly begins to realize his bachelor world must change. Watch his face as he goes through the emotions of Benedick secretly being tricked into thinking Beatrice loves him – top notch, acting at its best.
As Beatrice, Rachel Leslie portrays a woman who may have left the city at some point (note the accent difference between her and her family, a nice subtle indication) but finds it’s a hard bond to break – her concern for gentle cousin Hero (a radiant Roxi Victorian) rings true throughout.
I loved the decision to have troublemaker Borachio a woman on the down-low, played pitch-perfect by Dionne Audain. As bad boy Don John, Joel David Santner hits the mix of merry malice audaciously.
Serious kudos go to costume designer Helen Q. Huang, putting Don John in some criminally tight purple pants! Tony Cisek’s set seems overall more NYC than DC to me, but the painted plastic chairs and blue cooler are definitely Georgia Avenue.
There’s a strong committment throughout to the contemporary setting, and director Timothy Douglas’s concept really pays off with Doug Brown as Leonato, Hero’s father, a man still rooted in his Caribbean roots. His rendering of the false discovery that his daughter may not be so pure was so real I heard a few people crying. This is such a hard scene for a modern audience to take – a father wishing his daughter dead because she slept with a man. Here, it seems very real and possible.
Of course this is a comedy after all, and there are some riotously funny moments to brighten your night, not to mention, some great music courtesy of Craig Wallace as DJ Brother. I highly recommend you revisit the carnival.
“Much Ado About Nothing” at the Folger Theatre
Now thru November 29
201 East Capitol Street SE
Washington, DC 20003