19 January 2012

'Much Ado About Nothing' (Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2011)

I was in Washington for the year-end holidays (it’s my birthday, so I usually spend it with what’s left of my family), and it’s our usual practice to go to the theater on New Year’s Eve if there’s a good play on stage somewhere that evening. (Then we go home for midnight and toast in the New Year: no big party or over-the-top celebration.) This year, we took seats at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Cuban-themed production of Much Ado About Nothing at Sidney Harman Hall, the second of STC’s two performance spaces, on Northwest F Street downtown. As a night out, even a New Year’s Eve out, it was a wonderful evening: Much Ado is my favorite Shakespeare and one of my all-time favorite plays anyway—I seldom miss a chance to check out a new production—and a director’d have to go some distance to ruin it for me, and Ethan McSweeny didn’t come close to that precipice. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some problems and mistakes—and some of McSweeny’s choices have certainly disturbed some theatergoers and professionals who are less generous than I am with this play.

The Washington Post’s Peter Marks offered, “Conceptual transplants of Shakespeare’s plays have become so routine that ‘Macbeth’ would have to be set in the Stone Age to surprise an audience with temporal or geographical tinkering.” In that mindset, McSweeny put Messina in Cuba in the 1930s. It looked and sounded terrific, but the transposition didn’t do much to enhance the play in any other way. It did no harm, however, and wasn’t even as silly as the 1985 production by this company’s predecessor, the Folger Theatre, that was set aboard the S.S. Messina in the same decade, making it seem more Anything Goes than Shakespeare. (I have, in fact, seen two other Much Ado’s at one incarnation of STC or another over the years. The second one was in 2003, a co-production with Hartford Stage set in the 1920s starring Karen Ziemba as Beatrice. That one came out Noel Coward!)

On 18 September 2009, I ran an article on ROT called “Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage,” based on a Robert Brustein essay from 1988 (which I republished on ROT; see “’Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?’” 23 March 2011). In my article, I discussed the distinction Brustein makes between “the prosaic simile and the poetic metaphor.” “A simile production,” I interpreted, “simply shifts the time or location to an analogous one nearer our own, while a metaphorical one examines the play from the inside, ‘generating provocative theatrical images . . . that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.’” McSweeny’s Much Ado, which Marks characterized as “becoming, if overly concept-dependent,” falls clearly in the simile category, which Brustein saw as an update that “depends largely on external physical changes” frequently “jollied up” with tricks and gimmicks. I won’t recap my discussion from “Similes, Metaphors,” but I’ll say that by comparison, the metaphor production is bolder and more radical in both the textual and staging changes, and the reinterpretation. Nothing profound was added to the interpretation of the play despite STC Literary Associate Drew Lichtenberg’s effort to lay out some relevancies in a program article. (The current Porgy and Bess “re-imagination,” about which I wrote on this blog on 14 January, may come closer to the metaphorical end of the spectrum, but in the end, it’s still a simile.) Let’s look at McSweeny’s presentation and see how his Much Ado makes out.

I’m sure there’s no need to summarize the play’s plot, as well known as Much Ado is. As I said, the director reset Shakespeare’s story to Cuba in the mid-1930s, a time when the island nation was itself in turmoil. The program informed us that in 1933, Cuban sugar workers, students, and intellectuals allied with the army and deposed the government. (Lichtenberg made allusions to the current uprisings in Egypt and Libya, though, of course, we don’t know the end results of those rebellions. In Cuba, the “Sergeant’s Revolt” ultimately brought Fulgencio Batista to power in Havana in an authoritarian dictatorship that lasted until 1959, when it was overthrown by the Marxist forces of Fidel Castro.) Somehow, we were supposed to find parallels between this circumstance in Cuba and the plotline of Much Ado, in which Don Pedro, a Spanish duke, is in Sicily following the defeat of his rebellious brother, Don John. Shakespeare’s city of Messina was transformed into a sugar plantation owned by Leonato. The set of McSweeny’s production was the central courtyard of Leonato’s hacienda, wonderfully wrought by Lee Savage, with the terracotta-tiled courtyard floor surrounding a small pool adorned with a statue of cupid as its fountain. Upstage, we saw the two-level balustrades of two sides of the residence itself with the main staircase beneath the portico up center and a spiral iron stairway winding directly down to the courtyard at stage right. Not only was the view scrumptiously cool and refreshing, with flowers and potted plants everywhere, but it provided an excellent playing area for the comedy, offering glorious entrances and exits and great places to hide and eavesdrop—a sine qua non of most Shakespearean comedies, especially this one. (Some wonderful uses of the plants and the fountain pool might have justified the whole design by themselves. I was incredulous when Beatrice, trying to eavesdrop on Hero and Ursula when they’re setting her up, slips into the pool and creeps underwater to the side near them to hear better. Benedick, for his turn, gets his hand caught under the rockers of a rocking chair behind which he’s trying to hide.) The fountain, which could be fitted with a wooden cover, made some very good seating spots and a useful raised platform on occasion, and the several group scenes, especially the party scenes, took terrific advantage of the layout.

Those party scenes, particularly the main one in act one when disguise plays an important role, showed off Clint Ramos’s costume design scheme to great advantage. There were some amazing masks reminiscent of what I’ve seen at West Indian American Day Parades here and the vejigantes of Carnival in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Clearly, the designers and the show’s composer (and sound designer), Steven Cahill, whose work was especially evident in the parties, had immense fun conceiving this show. Among them, they created a credible evocation of Cuba in the ’30s, with the women’s fashions especially flattering and sexy (though one detractor—and I’ll get to this aspect of the production shortly—complained that the women’s clothes weren’t vibrant enough for the milieu). Of course, the trade-off of the choice of period was that the military uniforms of Don Pedro and his soldiers were dull khaki jodhpurs and tunics with Sam Brown belts and high boots for the officers (there was lots of heel-clicking!) and puttees for the grunts, and lots of Smokey-the-Bear hats—but with the verdant hacienda set behind them, it was little enough sacrifice for the military men to give up the far more colorful and elaborate uniforms of the 16th or 17th centuries.

There was no faulting the look of the production, or the sound. Cahill composed tunes that called to mind traditional Cuban music; Don Pedro’s army apparently traveled with a campesina band—two guitarists and a bongo player—which appeared at opportune times throughout the performance. Cuban life, it seems, even among the manly men of the army, doesn’t go unaccompanied by a soundtrack! The army entered the scene each time accompanied by music (and a Cuban flag, just to be sure we remembered where we were at all times), and Dogberry’s Watch always came in singing “Guantanamera,” a 1929 patriotic Cuban song, a cappella. (Peter Marks took two occasions to knock this directorial choice, but it didn’t bother me at all. It’s silly—but they’re silly anyway, so it fit as far as I was concerned. Maybe I’m just not sensitive enough to the nuances. Wouldn’t be the first time.) When Shakespeare’s script calls for a song, in McSweeny’s Much Ado it was rendered as a Cuban ditty, often accompanied by some impromptu dancing of a rhumba or mambo beat, the kind of music and dancing that we Norte Americanos used to spice up our parties in the middle of the last century. (I can very clearly remember learning the cha-cha in the ’50 when I was taking dance lessons as a boy. My parents and their friends were all learning it, too, along with several other immensely popular Latin steps.) It all seemed more than fitting to both the setting and the style of the production and the story.

According to an early report, McSweeny was after “a hot, sexy version of the play,” but it didn’t illuminate anything that a straighter rendering of the text wouldn’t have permitted. It may be my own prejudice speaking, but I just don’t think Much Ado needs help to get across. (I played Don John in a 1979 Off-Off-Broadway showcase which was set in Renaissance Italy like Shakespeare’s original, and it was considered an excellent staging all around which a number of people told me then and later had been one of the clearest and funniest productions of the classic comedy that they’d ever seen. No help, in other words, had been needed aside from good acting and directing. Not to blow my own horn, mind you.) In addition, McSweeny didn’t just update the setting and costumes and add some salsa music, but he tweaked the script a little, adding references to Havana, pesos, and mantillas—Margaret even mentioned a Heddy Lamarr dress when she admired Hero’s wedding gown; a few characters even assumed Spanish accents. (There was some controversy over a couple of name changes intended to accommodate the shift in location, but I’ll cover that later.) None of these were very intrusive, but I tend to feel that if you have to change the text, it’s an indication that you may be making a bad choice. It’s not a rule, of course, and the smaller the changes, the less disturbing they are—but it’s a little bell that goes off. It also calls attention to itself—and therefore to the director’s hand. That’s either distracting or egotistical—or both. In any case, like the time-and-place alterations, this didn’t add anything to the interpretation of the play.

In many cases, I might even dare say most, when a director updates Shakespeare, especially to a period generally close to our own, the actors seem to take the modernization of the look as permission to slip into contemporary acting style—even soap-opera acting—treating Shakespeare’s language as conversational Realism. Either because of this or along with it, the actors often endow their characters with a minimal emotional life rather than the heightened one demanded by Shakespeare’s plays. If the actors look like characters in a 1930s movie, they may be tempted to behave like characters in a 1930s movie. Ordinary people don’t speak poetry, and, more importantly, they don’t get as passionate as Shakespeare’s characters do. Now, I won’t go so far as to say that the STC cast fell into this trap, but they all did seem to be operating in a low gear. (The fault for this may possibly be that I saw the production in what would have been its penultimate performance had it not been extended a week.) I have no idea, of course, if the same actors would have stepped up their energy level if they’d played characters from 16th-century Italy and Spain instead of 20th-century Cuba. It’s been my experience over the years that present-day actors often reduce Shakespeare and the classics to a kind of poetic Naturalism; but I feel that resetting the plays in near-modern times and circumstances helps them do that.

The acting in Much Ado was fine overall. It just wasn’t scintillating. David Emerson Toney’s Don Pedro was stalwart and commanding, especially with his resonant baritone and imposing stature, but he struck me more as a leader by circumstance than personal fortitude: he was the duke by birth, so he was the commander by right. Claudio was a nice, apparently worthy young man, but the impetuosity of youth was missing in Ryan Garbayo’s portrayal. He just wasn’t the kind of post-adolescent who’d fall madly in love in a moment, then turn on the flimsiest evidence to vituperative contempt, and then to abject repentance. (Claudio always seemed to me like Romeo if he hadn’t died in his teens.) The villain Don John, a kind of Iago manqué in my view, was played by Matthew Saldivar as nearly too scheming—too cerebral—and not driven enough to have been forced almost intestinally to overturn the happiness of his brother and Claudio—just because he has to. Much Ado is a play that turns on the passions of its characters over the tiniest provocations; it is, after all, “much ado about nothing.” I watched Margaret (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), the putatively unwitting collaborator with Borachio in the deception that convinces Don Pedro, Benedick, and Claudio of Hero’s unfaithfulness, during the accusation scene when Claudio reveals that they’d seen his fiancée at her window with another man. Margaret surely realizes at that moment what she’d done, but Hewitt made no reaction as she watched Hero being abused and rejected. Especially in this play, there should have been a spasm of shame at that moment.

The band of buffoons, Dogberry (Ted van Griethuysen), Verges (Floyd King), and the Watch (Phil Hosford as Hugh Oatcake and Carlos J. Gonzalez as George Seacoal, with Aayush Chandan and Jacob Perkins as members of the ensemble) were excellent clowns in the Shakespearean mold. I’ve seen van Griethuysen and King before in comic roles (together in 2008 as Malvolio and Feste, respectively, in an STC coproduction of Twelfth Night with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre and, most recently, King as Emperor Joseph in the Round House Theatre’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus last May); both actors are favorites in Washington (and of my mom’s in particular) and have been on one or another of the District’s stages for decades. In Much Ado, they paired up like an old-fashioned vaudeville team, with van Griethuysen’s Dogberry finishing Verges’ sentences (until the final scene, when they reversed this gag much to Dogberry’s surprise) and a decrepit, slow-moving Verges (dressed like a Gabby Hayes character and carrying an ear trumpet) following Dogberry, stout, elaborately uniformed, and draped in a Cuban flag worn as a cape, a few paces behind. The Watch, mostly wordless, were classic pantomimists, and quite wonderful all around, shuffling in with their pitchforks, rakes, and scythes shouldered like actual weapons and chanting “Guantanamera.” Mother said she was disappointed with King’s part, but that was because he didn’t have as much solo stage time as she’d have liked, not because he wasn’t great in his stunning little moments. (The Washington Post called King “that rascally scene-stealer.” I think that was only by comparison.) From an acting point of view, not considering whether the part was “worthy” of King or not, the teamwork of van Griethuysen and King was gorgeous, marvelous little comic set pieces reminiscent of a Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello bit. Unlike the rest of the company, this team sparkled.

The most significant acting pair in Much Ado, arguably, are Beatrice and Benedick, the “merry warriors” of the play. I saw Derek Smith in 1986 as Romeo in one of the first productions staged by STC artistic director Michael Kahn just after he took over the company that was then called the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger. Smith was a very young actor then, just out of Juilliard (where Kahn had been a teacher and director of the acting division), but I recall his Romeo was dynamic, passionate, and sexy—and in love with his Juliet beyond all reason. As Benedick, however, he seems not only to have aged, but to have lost his passion. This was a Benedick whose love for Beatrice wasn’t so much unleashed by his friends’ gambit, but suggested and inflated by it. When he undertakes to challenge Claudio to a duel at Beatrice’s behest, Benedick should be so incensed and so enamored of Beatrice that he’s not just willing but avid to fight with his friend and likely kill him. Smith seemed more like a man who knew he should make the offer out of duty or expectation, and could find a way out of the dilemma before he’d have to act on it. Kathryn Meisle’s Beatrice was pretty much the female flipside of this Benedick. (Meisle was a late replacement for Veanne Cox, who left the production a week before the 25 November preview opening. Cox left for the usual, euphemistic “artistic differences”; Meisle had played Beatrice at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey, last September.) Both actors handled the repartee excellently, landing the jibes nicely and coming back with appropriate verve, but love wasn’t what drove it; it was more like intellectual and verbal rivalry. The affair was emblematic of the whole production: intellectually solid, but emotionally flat.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t passion attached to STC’s Much Ado. It just was off stage instead of on. (I’m going to report this contretemps, but since I don’t have a dog in the race myself, it all seemed a little put-up and over the top to me. Maybe I’m just insufficiently sensitive to the issue.) Because of the shift in locale, two characters in Constable Dogberry’s Watch with particularly English names, Hugh Oatcake and George Seacoal, were rechristened for the production as Juan Huevos and José Frijoles. (For us non-Spanish-speakers, that’s John Eggs and Joe Beans. At first, Huevos was going to be called Juan Arroz so the pair would be Rice and Beans, but for whatever reason, that idea was abandoned.) Now, I am aware that huevos is Spanish slang for ‘balls’ or ‘testicles,’ but that wasn’t what upset Latinos in and out of the Nation’s Capital who wrote to Kahn to express their displeasure. Washington-area director José Carrasquillo wrote Kahn that the names “feel like leftover stereotypes” and that if Much Ado had been reset to the American South, “I know that Johnny Fried Chicken or Johnny Gumbo wouldn’t have made it to the stage.” The director of the theater program at Louisville, Kentucky’s Bellarmine University, Carlos Manuel, suggested that when considering renaming characters, artistic directors appear to think that “it is okay to use stereotypes because well, who is going to care: not our Anglo audiences, for sure.” So after ten days of previews and just under three weeks of regular shows, Shakespeare’s original names were restored and the programs were reprinted. (I can’t explain this, but the program booklets Mom and I got on 31 December included the Spanish names. Perhaps STC had used up the altered ones and instead of printing more, reverted to the left-over booklets from the early performances to finish out the run. On stage, of course, the English names were used.) Tlaloc Rivas, a freelance Mexican-American stage director who instigated an e-mail and letter-writing campaign condemning the decision, remarked afterwards: "Here was an artistic leader who listened to his audience and decided to do the right thing."

Several of the decision’s critics had other complaints, prompted, I imagine, by the renaming. Anna Serra, an associate professor of language and foreign studies at the District’s American University, thought that the women’s costumes were too tame for the milieu: “Don’t give me dresses with pastel colors—give me bright colors! Give me decoletage!” She was also “shocked” that the production “was set on a Cuban plantation and there was only one character who was non-white.” Aside from the fact that that wasn’t actually accurate—both David Emerson Toney, who played Don Pedro, and Mark Hairston, who played Borachio, and several members of the ensemble are actors of color (and several other cast members have Spanish surnames)—Kahn asserted that STC actively solicited Latino actors for the production, but that most “turned down” the call. As for the attempt to find funny Spanish names to echo “Oatcake” and “Seacoal,” Kahn admitted that the decision was misguided and that it “is our problem, and it will never happen again.”

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