By Bill Marx
Shakespeare’s text has been streamlined for easy reading on a summer evening – there’s no intermission, lots of physical comedy and a party vibe.
A lot of noise for nothing by William Shakespeare. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Presented by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company on Boston Common, through August 7.
CSC Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s decision to establish this A lot of noise for nothing in the 90s makes theatrical and political sense, and not just because its soldiers in Operation Desert Storm return to an American pop culture filled with “bright colors and big hair” as well as “a powerful undercurrent hip-hop, grunge, and queer theory. Of course, the choice offers plenty of opportunity for pungent (and nostalgic) costumes, dance, and music, and the likable production puts it to fun use. been streamlined for easy consumption on summer evenings – there’s no intermission, lots of physical comedy and a party vibe.
More interesting are the ironic hints about how things would go in 2003 with the disastrous invasion of Iraq. The words slander and deceit come up often in A lot of noise. Deception can be used to bring reluctant lovebirds Beatrice and Benedick together, but enthusiasm for treachery is also symptomatic of a society (and military?) that revels in the power games of masquerade, a male-dominated world who – when his superficiality is disturbed – becomes very nasty very quickly. There’s something empty about Messina: beside (to me) Shakespeare’s most humane novelists, most of the other characters are one-note, as if the bard is a bit bored with them. Even the villain, Don John, is sort of generic – just meant to be mean. Yet, like the much more mysterious Iago, he has the number of his victims. He knows how gullible (or empty) they are.
So, in a time when social media slander and deceit is stifling, reputations being destroyed by a tweet, the premise of time has shown promise. Couplings in Shakespeare’s comedies are often tinged with black. Claudio and Don Pedro call off Hero’s wedding on the slightest evidence – there’s no investigation, just a humiliating public exposure. This hero has no problem living through marriage with Claudio (once things are clarified) says something about the degraded position of women as well as the prerogatives of “manliness”. But Sandberg-Zakian doesn’t seem interested in exploring this provocative aspect of her update. She bites into the debacle and its aftermath, but the show‘s light-hearted comedic tone is too thick. I liked Remo Airaldi’s nasal growl of self-pity when, as (loving?) father Leonato, he wishes his disgraced daughter dead. But it’s telling that when Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio to avenge her cousin’s unjust disgrace, many Boston Common onlookers laughed, at least on the night I attended. The request should be chilling because it reflects her steely fury, a touch of feminist revenge.
Instead of delving into these undercurrents, the staging embraces the breeze from the start and sticks to it, the evening’s broad performances inspired by the ancient spirit of Kathleen Doyle’s vibrant costumes and the cultural marks of era, such as hip hop and rap. The most unconventional aspect of the production is that Benedick is female. The inventive exchanges, acrobatic squabbling and combustible (now lesbian) pair support are more wonderful than ever – the subplot, as usual, overwhelms the main attraction. As Beatrice, Rachael Warren is initially too strong, assuming (wrongly) that she must help propel the character’s shot of sarcasm. Warren becomes more effective later, the actor’s humanity cutting against his earlier urge to hammer home insults. Tia James’ Benedick perfectly combines strength and vulnerability. It’s an interesting multi-dimensional portrait powered, in part, by the refreshing spin she puts on some of Benedick’s lines – welcome doses of off-speed attitude. The vocal delivery of the other cast members is clear, if a bit mechanical at times. There is a tendency to jump – with both amygdalas – on keywords.
The other performances are pretty much on the broad end of the musical comedy spectrum. As Antonio, Leonato’s “brother”, John Kuntz is a technicolor clothes horse. He and Airaldi’s Leonato appear to be auditioning for a road show production of The Cage with Crazy. Many of the Bard’s clowns haven’t aged well and, to me, Dogberry is among the most moldy, a one-trick or two-trick malaprop. Luckily, Constable fumbling has effectively been reduced here. Debra Wise generates laughs as the goofy leader of a wind-up toy scout team, but it’s a sure sign of defeat when Dogberry and her fellow officers are asked out of the kazoos. Gunnar Manchester’s Don John comes across as a despised male role model; Sarah Corey provides engaging swagger as the main sidekick, Borachio. Michael Underhill’s Don Pedro is smugly cynical.
As Hero and Claudio, Rebecca-Anne Whittaker and Erik Robles are enthusiastic, and that’s about where it A lot of noise want to be. That good humor could be part of the room’s appeal for these anxious times. Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company is also currently hosting a production of the comedy. Man is a giddy thing, believes Benedick at the end of A lot of noise. Administrators seem to interpret the word to mean elation rather than inconstancy. I’m not sure life is going to be easy for Hero, who’s going to have to watch his steps in macho Messina. But that doesn’t seem to matter — our preference, like the characters in the play, is to face the music and the dance.
Bill Marx is the editor of The fuse of the arts. For four decades he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast and online. He has been a regular theater commentator for national public radio station WBUR and the boston globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine which in 2004 won an online journalism award for specialized journalism. In 2007, he created The fuse of the artsan online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.