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A CurtainUp Review
Much Ado About Nothing

by Les Gutman

South Side Cafe in the Theater District

Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of
the brain awe a man from the career of his humour?
No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would
die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I
were married.

---Benedick, Act II, scene 3
Kristen Johnson and Jimmy Smits
K. Johnston and J. Smits (Photo: Michal Daniel)
There is a remarkably large body of criticism of this play. I, for one, find it unnecessary to sit in a park on a most pleasant summer evening and insist that my mind grapple with what the "event" of this play might be. Especially when the playwright has announced by its title that it isn't going to have one.

What Much Ado does have, and needs for a successful production, is a very funny duo (that would be Benedick (Jimmy Smits) and Beatrice (Kristen Johnston)), and one outrageous man, Don John (Christopher Evan Welch). As a bonus, it's nice when it can offer a comedy-enhancing Dogberry (Brian Murray) after the intermission.

Director David Esbjornson seems to recognize this, and delivers the best directed Shakespeare in the Park in recent years, unencumbered by extraneous gimmicks (some would call them directorial indulgences). The result is a happy one. As it should be.

This production doesn't fiddle with the play's locale -- it is set in Messina -- but the time period is moved forward a number of centuries: it is set in the post-World War I era. (The play itself, it should be noted, is not time specific to begin with.) Otherwise, it is quite straightforward, and Mr. Esbjornson's embellishments quite consistent with the play's intentions. (Some are more successful than others; and he comes close to overdoing the reminders of the 20th Century; but one, involving a hysterical bit of interaction between Benedick and a well, will likely stay in the audience's memory for quite some time.)

The cast is right on target everywhere it needs to be, and in some cases elsewhere as well. Kristen Johnson appears to have been born to play Beatrice, her feisty wit on full display here. Yet it is not a one-dimensional portrayal, and she does well conveying the character's more stressful moments with equal authority. Jimmy Smits rises to the challenge inherent in the comic pairing, and displays both a charm and wit that is most appealing. His seemingly natural facility with physical comedy is perhaps the show's biggest revelation, yet he must also be credited with finding a distinctly Sicilian sensibility.

Dressed in a gauche dark outfit that immediately identifies his nefariousness, Christopher Evan Welch couldn't be a better party-pooper. And yes, our Dogberry, Mr. Murray, brings the necessary comic touches, if perhaps more languidly than one might have wished. Among the remainder of the cast, Peter Francis James (as Don Pedro) and Dane Knell (as Dogberry's compadre Verges) are standouts.

That the real-life father-daughter pairing of Sam and Elizabeth Waterson as Leonato and Hero isn't as exciting in execution as it is in concept doesn't especially matter much. (It's worth remembering, also, that Waterson more or less jump-started his acting career by playing Benedick at the Public in 1972, and then on Broadway; his playbill bio notes that his dog is named Benedick.) His performance here is certainly adequate if slightly pedestrian; his daughter doesn't seem up to the task. Her Claudio (the dashing Lorenzo Pisoni) fares somewhat better.

Christine Jones' set makes ample use of the surrounding scenery, adding little beyond a grand Italian staircase and an arched doorway leading onto a lovely terrace overlooking, as it turns out, Central Park's Turtle Pond. The exception to this is a Broadway-ish backdrop containing a multitude of light bulbs, the payoff for which is itself much ado about nothing. Jess Goldstein adds most attractive costumes, and Michael Chybowski has supplied most effective lighting. A score by Mark Bennett, performed by musicians roaming about the proceedings and including a healthy dose of fine singing by, of all people, the Friar (Steven Skybell), adds immeasurably to the effect.

My guest at the Delacorte joked as we walked in, "It's a nice night for a wedding." Indeed, let's have two.

Stratford Festival
Stratford Festival NY Transfer
Shakespeare & Company
London (Globe)
Pearl Theatre

Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
Directed by David Esbjornson
with Laura Kai Chen, Dominic Chianese, Frank Faucett, Manoel Felciano, Elizabeth Haselwood, Aleta Hayes, Bill Heck, Andre Holland, Jayne Houdyshell, Peter Francis James, Kristen Johnston, Kevin Kelly, Dane Knell, Peter McCain, Julio Monge, Brian Murray, Lorenzo Pisoni, Steven Skybell, Jimmy Smits, Emily Swallow, Sean Patrick Thomas, Elisabeth Waterston, Sam Waterston and Christopher Evan Welch
Set Design: Christine Jones
Costume Design: Jess Goldstein
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski
Composer/Music Coordinator: Mark Bennett
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Wig Design: Charles Lapointe
Choreography: Jane Comfort
Running time: 3 hours with 1 intermission
A production of The Public Theater
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park (enter park @81st Street/CPW or 79th/5 Av.)
Telephone (212) 539-8750 Public Theater website:
Opening July 13, 2004, closes August 8, 2004 Tues - Sun @8; Free, limit of 2 per person (ticket pickup at the Delacorte or The Public beginning at 1 P.M. and elsewhere in all 5 boroughs on specified days -- see The Public Theater website)
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 7/10/04 performance
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