by SOPHIE KERMAN
A good director knows his or her audience, and although the Guthrie Theater‘s latest Shakespearean adaptation failed for me on several levels, I have to give director Joe Dowling credit where credit is due. As far as I could tell, the audience at the opening night of Much Ado About Nothing mostly consisted of couples with graying hair and a cultured way about them. If they hadn’t seen or read the play before, it was clear from their laughter that they were at least familiar with the 1993 Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film adaptation, which sets the standard extremely high for Shakespearean romantic comedy (whether on stage or screen). When thinking about the Guthrie’s production, I must reluctantly admit that whether or not I agree with his strategies, I am not the audience that Joe Dowling had in mind.
Much Ado is a play about two romances orchestrated by gossip. Hero and Claudio, the more earnest couple, are repeatedly under attack by Don John’s schemes to provoke Claudio’s jealousy. Benedick and Beatrice, whose witty repartee is the most charming source of the play’s humor, represent the jaded individualists who are tricked into recognizing the appeal of matrimony. While the two couples can be seen as opposites – the serious and the comic sides of love – there is something very silly about Hero and Claudio, and something deeply sad about Beatrice’s and Benedick’s refusals to love. The nuance in the characters has the potential to make the play emotionally compelling, rather than simply a series of comic set pieces.
While Dearbhla Molloy (Beatrice) and Daniel Gerroll (Benedick) produce layered performances of their characters’ charms, flaws, and vulnerabilities, other actors (most notably Bill McCallum as Claudio) seem to suffer from poor direction. The first half of the Guthrie’s production leans heavily on physical comedy – some of which seems extremely out of character – and on one-liners delivered out to the audience. Moments which could have contributed to our sense of rich character development are often played for a quick laugh. This comic pandering was my first cue that I wasn’t the audience the Guthrie was looking for. While I looked for psychological connections, the audience around me seemed happy to laugh at familiar lines and recognizable characters. The riotous laughter at the antics of Dogberry (Peter Michael Goetz) was the most jarring instance of this disconnect: a certain verbal tic seemed to delight much of the audience, while to me, it seemed like an unnecessary and artificial addition to an already-comic character.
The second thing that alienated me as an audience member was the casting choices themselves. In Dowling’s production, Beatrice and Benedick are meant to be much older than Hero and Claudio. As an interpretation, this is very interesting – it would allow for an exploration of youthful impetuousness and middle-aged cynicism. The problem is, all four of the actors playing the romantic leads are “of a certain age,” which not only blurs the distinction between the two couples, but also leads to some confusing line readings. (For example, Benedick’s famous justification of his love, “The world must be peopled!”, makes little sense when both characters are over 60.) I could only conclude that this unusual casting choice was made in the hopes of appealing to an older audience who might recognize their own marital squabbles on stage.
Although Dowling’s unusual interpretation left me with many questions, it also led to some compelling theatrical moments. Because so much was played purely for laughs, the deeply serious moments in the second half were all the more powerful (demonstrating that “serious relief” might be just as important to a comedy as “comic relief” is to a tragedy). And Riccardo Hernández‘s simple set, aesthetically pleasing though not inspiring, directed the audience’s focus onto the characters and the text – a strategy that worked best when the scene was clearly imagined and uncluttered by gimmicks.
Am I old-fashioned for wishing that the Guthrie would, for once, produce an adaptation of Shakespeare that focuses on the text and on the company’s highly capable (and sometimes outstanding) acting? The audience around me seemed more than satisfied to laugh along with the play’s superficial comedy. But as Dogberry ironically notes, “When the age is in, the wit is out” – and looking at the talented actors on stage, I wonder if age has indeed brought with it a certain complacency, a failure to demand quality when entertainment is easily attainable.