Wednesday, July 9, 2014

'Much Ado' in Plymouth: Frolicking in Shakespeare's Garden

            They take the title, the first two words primarily, seriously. The players of the Bay Colony Shakespeare Company have much to do and do it well in their new production of Shakespeare's classic comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" currently on stage at the Spire theater in Plymouth. In the part of Benedick, actor Neil McGarry, looking for a place to hide so he can eavesdrop on other characters saying something of the greatest personal interest to Benedick, escapes into the audience, hopping up on the seating, climbing over the bench backs and sometimes the people in them. He scrambled on his hands and knees down an aisle, somehow missing the 'beverage' at my feet.
            Only moments before Benedick has been complaining of having to choke down a too heavy dish of "Lady Tongue" -- his term for witty nemesis Beatrice.
            "Much Ado" is the famous comedy (memorably filmed 25 years ago with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) in which the two leads pretend to dislike one another and engage in battles of witty (often complex) insults because of a fixed public position on each side against marriage. Naturally -- because comedy is the world where change and growth is possible -- at the first indication that the other bears a hidden affection, both cave. Their friends provide these helpful hints in heavily staged gossip sessions over how each is secretly suffering from unrequited love. Only someone fooling himself could be fooled by so heavy-handed a ploy, but this is Shakespeare's way of saying we will choose to hear what our heart wishes, and our ego needs, to hear.
            There is comedy in this play, and then there is plain clowning. While the play's well-born characters are working out their issues, Shakespeare gives us one of his best 'common folk' clown character in the superbly uneducated Dogberry, the leader of the city 'watch' that fortuitously discovers the villainy of the piece. Actor Ross MacDonald (who plays Macbeth in the production of that play running concurrently with "Much Ado") here takes the role of the triumphantly muddle-headed Dogberry into the sort of contemporary, post-Python open-ended parody of everything the Brits do better than anyone, ad-libing ad hoc commentary between Dogberry's nonsensical pretensions of medieval civil authority and throwing in a few rants of his own. He stomps across the stage in a send-up of 21st century military pomp and bellowing, fed perhaps by his personal experience in the UK force that served in Afghanistan, and with able assistance from Erica Simpson's winning second-in-command reaches into the audience to pull a few likely suspects onto the stage.
            All the performances are winning. McGarry and young actress Poornima Kirby have great charisma in the leads. They share one of the Shakespeare's best love scenes, drawing on the tears provoked by the tragic near-death of the wrongly accused bride-to-be Hero. How would she address Hero's accuser, Beatrice is asked. Reply: "I would eat his heart in the marketplace." Benedick's responds, 'are you sure of Hero's innocence' and when she answers yes, his response is (in effect) you've got it, babe: "I am engaged," delivering the line with a deft understated perfection that shivers the spine. We see him challenge Claudio, heretofore his best friend, with the same rapier clarity of purpose a few moments later.
            The dead seriousness and dark tone of these scenes contrasts brilliantly with the gaiety and even silliness of the rest of the play. Comedies with a dark streak are a specialty of Shakespeare's ouevre. I don't know if there's been anything like them since.
            I'm grateful for the full cast's all-in engagement with this brilliant wordy piece. Audiences may have some difficulty catching on to the play's vivid, figurative Elizabethan speech-- filled with the vernacular of the times, quaint speech patterns, and the words Shakespeare invented on the fly -- but from the moment the action picks up and McGarry begins flying through the audience to overhear the inspired fiction that Beatrice secretly loves him, everyone in the theater Tuesday night was hooked on this play.
            Why not? For, as Benedick acknowledges at the play's happy end, "Man is a giddy thing."