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Much Ado About Nothing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Braun and Samantha Soule
Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The roots of melodrama, which frequently run beneath William Shakespeare's canny comedy Much Ado About Nothing, are allowed to bloom rich and full in The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit production of the play. You know what you're in for from before the first line of dialogue, too: Each of the characters is introduced in a metatextual prologue that encourages swooning at young lovers Hero and Claudio, laughing at Beatrice and Benedick's declarations of perpetual singledom and, oh yes, hissing villains Don John and Borachia.

Though it's been directed with real caffeinated punch by Kwame Kwei-Armah and is performed by a boundlessly energetic octet of actors, most of the production doesn't progress beyond that setup. As played, with pituitary relish by Lucas Caleb Rooney, Don John is a hulking black wall of a bad guy—even with a mustache to twirl (though, in fairness, I never noticed him doing that). Exactly why he wants to interfere in the nuptials of Hero (Kerry Warren) and Claudio (A.Z. Kelsey) is not something he ever believably justifies—in the broad strokes used here, their being ridiculously young and impossibly good looking is, apparently, reason enough.

No, this doesn't quite make for an intellectually fulfilling evening of Shakespeare, but this is one of those cases where I'm willing to overlook it. This is the last stop of the production's tour to unusual venues for the purpose of providing access to The Bard for people who may otherwise have no chance to see them (think schools, prisons, and the like), and it's been cut down from a full-length play to a scarce 100 minutes, with the loss of most of the nuances and subsidiary characters you may expect. And six of the cast members play two or more roles, leaving everything on a smaller and more frenetic scale anyway.

But what matters most is that what's done here is done well enough that you can't convince yourself to not have a good time—even if your otherwise unegaged brain tells you that you should. Kelsey and Warren are a scintillating pair of lovers, obviously and credibly fueled by surging hormones, and propriety binds them to no restrictions on heat the way can sometimes happen with this play. (The setting, established in part by Timothy R. Mackabee's astroturf set and Clint Ramos's color-coded costumes—pink flourishes for the women, military greens for the men—is modern-day university.)

If Rooney has nowhere to go with his irredeemably nasty Don John, his Dogberry, refashioned as a class-conscious, whistle-loving, Keystone Kops–style security guard, is as hilarious as he is self-absorbed. Rosal Colón (Borachia and Margaret) and Ramsey Faragallah (Leonato) are almost as good, and every bit as committed, in their roles. Only Marc Damon Johnson, as Don Pedro, falters; he conveys neither the authority nor the warmth the men's concerned father figure should have, and doesn't define what he's doing very well except when he's playing the hard-of-hearing officer Verges (in which case, however, he's quite funny).

As Beatrice and Benedick, the eternal bickerers who eventually discover what they're looking for in each other, Michael Braun and Samantha Soule register as something less than absolute comedic dynamos. But what they fail to elicit in laughs they make up for in tenacity, projecting exactly the right sense of pointed indignation that brands these two unlovable lovers as deceptively perfect mates. Braun wields a sharp, aloof wit that gradually melts into deeper affection without losing its underlying humor. And Soule's Beatrice is rigorously, even violently, intelligent; hers is the most focused, unremitting portrayal I've ever seen of the character, which pays huge dividends when Beatrice finally softens, even though you can't pinpoint the precise instant her change of heart occurs.

Isn't that as it should be? For the characters in Much Ado About Nothing, as for so many in the factual world, love is less something you plan than something you discover after you've already been under its influences for longer than is probably medically safe. Braun's and especially Soule's performances highlight this, without underplaying either the necessary elation or heartbreak. They are, ultimately, real people. This Much Ado would be better off if there were a few more of them hanging around, but as it is this take is about as entertaining as anything robustly one-dimensional can be.

Much Ado About Nothing
Through December 15
Current Performance Schedule at The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit

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