Linklater & Rabe

Linklater & Rabe – Photo: Joan Marcus



NY Theater Review by JK Clarke




It’s remarkable how many of Shakespeare’s comedies are a mere coincidence away from becoming heartbreaking tragedies. Perhaps that’s what creates the tension (and, hence, joyful release) in the darker, and far more complex and entertaining plays like Much Ado About Nothing, which is the first of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park features at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. And what an edgy delight it is!

Set (photo: JK Clarke)

Set (photo: JK Clarke)

It’s messy subterfuge and chance that creates the drama in the first place: having returned from war, Claudio (Jack Cutmore-Scott) confesses his love for Hero (Ismenia Mendes), daughter of Leonato (John Glover) to his dear friend Benedick (Hamish Linklater), who’s not pleased but accepts it nonetheless. Fellow returning soldier, Don John (Pedro Pascal), however, is (like almost every bastard in Shakespeare), a bitter, cynical and angry . . . uh, bastard. And he plots to make Hero out to appear a harlot, rather than the chaste maid all know her to be. Our modern, western minds find this difficult to grasp as a true problem. But, in the vile misogyny of the era — that is still, sadly, very much real in many cultures around the world, such that one reads accounts of women stoned to death (by family members!) for merely marrying the man they love — the slander against Hero (at the altar and by her true love, no less) is devastating and she faints dead away, a woman destroyed. To preserve her integrity her priest and friends decide they must tell the world she has died of heartbreak. Let’s face it, to modern sensibilities the premise is nauseating.

Wisely, director Jack O’Brien has chosen not to dwell on the ugliness, instead using it as a pivot point for the play’s other central storyline, that of the begrudging (and friend-orchestrated) love affair between Hamish Linklater’s Benedick and Lily Rabe’s Beatrice. Despite respectable positions in their community and otherwise proven maturity, they treat the topic of love with about as much dignity as seven-year-olds, right down to girls/boys-are-icky tropes. But, hilariously so. Rabe’s Beatrice is as whiskey-voiced and sharp-tongued as Mae West at her finest: “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.” And Linklater navigates his transformation from hard-hearted bumbling bro to gallant amant with the smoothness of his freshly-shaven face.

But it is the management of more subtle roles that makes the production pop. As the rejected, yet even-tempered Don Pedro (a role that feels incomplete at the written level), Brian Stokes Mitchell is elegant and charming, providing a nobility and levity to the proceedings that the play often lacks. Austin Durant’s Friar Francis is an entertaining and likeable priest whose role in the play’s resolution here becomes more pronounced. And, even more to that end, John Glover’s Leonato is a more elevated role. What is often a rather one-dimensional character, Leonato becomes pleasingly far more dynamic and more central to the play in Glover’s care. This Leonato is subtly amusing at times and fierce at others. One cannot help but watch with fascination and anticipation when Glover is on stage, as he quietly, and unexpectedly, steals scene after scene.

This production could be successfully staged anywhere, but coupled with a balmy, beautiful Central Park summer’s eve, John Lee Beatty has created an absolutely gorgeous set: the backyard of a two-story Sicilian  country villa that’s so authentic-looking you’d think it was a permanent, long-ago built structure if you hadn’t seen the stage prior to the production. The other elements, from clear-as-a-bell sound (Acme Sound Partners) despite helicopters flying intermittently overhead; to warm, sunny lighting (Jeff Croiter); and Jane Greenwood’s beautiful late 19th century Empire costumes, round out the pure authenticity of the scene. [Perhaps the only shortcoming comes from two or three inconsiderate and entitled parents who thought it would be okay to bring their two-year-old children to the play. It’s not okay, and the Delacorte should prohibit it. There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing a babbling toddler during a dramatic pause in the action — it takes us completely out of the moment just as much as a ringing cellphone would.]

It is only by a fluke that the plot against Hero is uncovered. Nincompoop and master of malaprop Constable Dogberry (an amusing John Pankow) and his watchmen inadvertently overhear Don John’s henchmen boasting of their evil deed and the money they were paid for it. If not for this accident, the play turns into a tragedy, with Benedick likely taking down his dear friend in a duel of honor, which made all of the “ado” about something very real. Instead, we have a whimsical evening in an idyllic setting, both natural (Central Park) and staged. There could not be a play more suited to this environment, nor an environment more suited to this play. It’s a conduit to a mirthful, easy-going evening in the park, watching a beautiful, entertaining production unfold as the sun sets in the background. It is, in fact, something to be quite excited about.

Much Ado About Nothing. Through July 6 at The Delacorte Theater (Central Park near 81st Street and Central Park West entrance).