I’ve been tough on the Shakespeare tragedies recently, but the comedies are no less rich in potential problems for modern audiences. Start with the interfering gods and fairies, the lusty wenches and dimwit rustics. Then add the disguises and outrageous coincidences. Swallow if you can the identical twins. The cross-gender identical twins. The sum of all this is often twee. Some of the titles and subtitles even put you on notice that the plot mechanics may not stand up to serious consideration: As You Like It. What You Will. The Comedy of Errors. Much Ado About Nothing.
Despite its especially dismissive name, Much Ado is actually the outlier in that list. It does feature dimwit rustics, briefly, and one masked dance in which a disguise results in an unlikely misunderstanding. But the rest of the comedy is utterly unmasked: It is purely, intensely, and naturally human. For the most part, the motivations that elsewhere bob on otherworldly currents are anchored here in the heart’s deep bed. The sparring Beatrice and Benedick are not the greatest Shakespearean couple just because of their “merry war,” though the felicity of their wit is unparalleled. It’s also because they have their reasons.
It makes them, when played well, instantly recognizable as modern stage characters, perhaps the first comic ones ever, and Jack O’Brien’s confident, sprightly production for the Public Theater in Central Park happily builds on that strength. We understand from Lily Rabe’s first lines that though her Beatrice is as opinionated and sharp-tongued as any, she’s no stock termagant; she’s a woman with overripe reflexes and something to learn. Her warmth with the women — especially her cousin Hero, who outranks her — is the clue that her coldness to Benedick is just a thaw waiting to happen; she grows to full womanhood before our eyes. Meanwhile, Benedick, in Hamish Linklater’s unusually serious performance, is also working from emotion, in his case the sting of rejection by the woman he loves. If her wit is a sword, cutting her own hopes down to size, his is a shield. Delightful as it is to witness the resulting combat, it’s not an even match theatrically: Conceived this way, Benedick has less room to grow during the course of the action. When he shaves his beard we should not feel that he is merely observing a social nicety for a soldier returned from the war; we should feel that he is newly exposed to the raw air of love. But he was already most of the way there at the start.
O’Brien nevertheless finds wonderful, unexpected little curls in the familiar text, and without slowing the proceedings gets the actors to tuck these insights back into the plot, making it tighter. Why, for instance should Don Pedro, a noble, bother to concoct the scheme whereby Beatrice and Benedick are each fooled into thinking the other has professed love? Usually we account for this by noting Don Pedro’s affection for Benedick; he wants to help his friend succeed. True enough, but O’Brien brings out a darker motivation as well, by very quickly illustrating the collateral damage of Beatrice’s wit when she wounds Don Pedro’s pride:
BEATRICE: Thus goes every one to the world but I, and I am sun-burnt; I may sit in a corner, and cry heigh-ho for a husband!
DON PEDRO: Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.
BEATRICE: I would rather have one of your father’s getting. Hath your Grace ne’er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
DON PEDRO: Will you have me, lady?
BEATRICE: No, my lord, unless I might have another for working-days: your grace is too costly to wear every day.
Usually this is just a joke; here Beatrice means it. And even though she apologizes, and Don Pedro lets it pass, it’s too late: We have seen the pained look on Brian Stokes Mitchell’s face. He has not only been rejected but compared to a dress! And we do not forget it as, with uncommonly retributive relish, he engineers his love-scam.
This Much Ado is wonderfully darkened by such glancing moments, much as purple clouds threatened the Central Park sky (and occasionally unleashed showers) the night I attended. As a result the secondary plot, involving Don Pedro’s evil brother, Don John, played with mustache-twirling aplomb by Pedro Pascal, is better integrated than usual. His plan to ruin the betrothal of Hero to her lover is clearly in the same world as, and parallel to, Don Pedro’s less pernicious plan. Shakespeare seems to be asking us to consider whether the process of matchmaking is so very different — morally, or at least emotionally — from its opposite.
I wish the production were content with its more serious outlook; most of the lighter colors applied seem unnecessary or silly. The over-pressured comic scenes of Dogberry and his Keystone Kops are leaden, despite that usually fine clown John Pankow; a preshow in Italian, involving (why?) a trellis no one can move except by the magic of music, offers nothing extra even if you can understand it. It’s not as if the production were lacking in relevant delights, even aside from the built-in sparkling dialogue. Exceptionally fine music by David Yazbek (some hey-nonny-nonnies are deliciously sung by Mitchell), lovely costumes (by recent lifetime-achievement-Tony-winner Jane Greenwood) and John Lee Beatty’s Mediterranean villa setting (with Belvedere Castle echoing it in the distance) all offer purely theatrical pleasure.
And then there is, or may be, the rain, which surprisingly enhanced both the darkness and lightness of the story. The best comedies work by bringing you in earshot of tragedy, or at least to an apprehension of grief, as Shakespeare in Much Ado gives us the shaming of Hero at her nuptials and her subsequent faked death. (You can’t help but think of Juliet’s less successful version of the same ploy.) Wondering whether the steady drizzle would turn harsher (as it did, intermittently) and stop the show (as it did, briefly) somehow enriched the audience’s connection to the characters and the cast (who responded with a few delightful ad libs, verbal or gestural). That in the end we got through the whole play with only a brief pause joined us in a communal feeling of life’s survivability, which is as good a definition of comedy as I know.
Much Ado About Nothing is at the Delacorte through July 6.