Kathryn Meisle as Beatrice and Derek Smith as Benedick in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is odd. Not on stage – there it’s very entertaining with only minor flaws. Odd in selection, odd in its last-minute casting kerfuffle, odd in tone choice.
The selection and tone choice weirdness is the most prominent. Why do this now, two short years since Folger did their own production of Ado with a Caribbean bent? It’s a well-loved play and good fun but this seems like very recently-trod ground given the similarity in cultural tone. The play notes credit the concept to a 2007 production by Vivian Benesch at Chaucautua in New York, where Director Ethan McSweeny is artistic director alongside Ms Benecsh, so it pre-dates Folger’s production, but why not stretch a little and give us something a little more divergent than what happened down the street?
Deja vu aside, the show swings for the fences and pretty consistently delivers.
Ted van Griethuysen as Dogberry and Floyd King as Verges in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Where the show really excels is where it needs to – in the humor. If your only experience with Ado is via Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 filmed version you’re in for a pleasant experience; Derek Smith is, for my money, more believable as a man with a sharp edge over his gooey inner hopeful romantic. His conflict over whether he’s really taken seriously by his cohorts is nicely layered and his transition when taking up Beatrice’s cause really clicks; when he shifts from being in uniform to a suit it shows in his carriage as well as his costume.
Meisel and Smith make a very likable Beatrice and Benedict, which almost worsens the show’s lone serious problem – Hero and Claudio. More specifically, whatever choices actor Ryan Garbayo and McSweeny are making in Claudio’s presentation. Claudio is supposed to be young and a little awkward; he calls upon his superior officer to woo on his behalf, after all.
But Garbayo is always at somewhat of a remove from us and it’s clearly somewhat on the director; when he confronts Hero for her supposed transgressions he repeatedly puts his back to the audience, thrusting his right shoulder forward and giving us, at best, a bit of a view of his profile. If this is meant to represent something to us it was lost on me – my emotional reaction to that was “for goodness sake, turn around!”
Similarly lost was a sense of a sense of multiple settings. The set is, as befits a STC production, beautiful. But McSweeny has made the decision to present the show with a single intermission and no curtains, meaning everything happens within the hacienda courtyard whether that’s where it’s supposed to be happening there or not. It keeps a long show moving quickly, but it’s most bothersome when we watch a coffin placed on a fountain’s rim and listen to discussions of epitaphs in graveyards.
Overall, however, these are small complaints. The cast commits to the buffoonery in a way that would make the Stooges proud; I’d be surprised if you’ll see better physical comedy this year than when Benedict is being set up by his friends to fall in love with Beatrice. The cast is committed, the music good, and McSweeny can deliver some spectacle. If you don’t usually see Shakespeare for the song and dance numbers, well, here’s your shot.
Derek Smith as Benedick and Ryan Garbayo as Claudio in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Much Ado About Nothing runs through January 1 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Theater, located at 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-547-1122.