Set in the 1920s with ragtime tunes, a gleaming and glittering art deco set swathed in flapper outfits, a Charlie Chaplin look-alike constable, and a late middle-aged Beatrice and Benedick, the Stratford Festival has created a “Much Ado About Nothing” that mocks the cruelties of aging as much as it celebrates the virtues of individuality. Lighthearted and stylish, the conceit works well.
Director Richard Monettea brings a comedic touch that massages the two crucial eavesdropping scenes to vibrant, hilarious life, and he maintains a smart, clipped pace that keeps the audience engaged. In addition to some evocative singing of period songs by Jonathan W. Munro as Balthasar, there are a number of strong, elegant performances.
Ambitious and creative, this glittering, Gotham-bound “Much Ado” is a captivating crowd-pleaser that achieves a fair deal while leaving room to grow. It should have settled in nicely by the time the production reaches City Center in November as part of a visit that also includes late season opener, Moliere’s “The Miser.”
Monette has carefully carved out the two worlds within the play, trapping his richly colored (both in terms of performance and wardrobe) older lovers within a world of pale froth and frills. Hero, with her curly blonde, magazine-ad style beauty, and Claudio, boyish and gangly in his cream soldier’s uniform, are the simpering examples by which this society sets its standards.
It is easy, therefore, to understand why Brian Bedford’s opinionated Benedick and Martha Henry’s caustic Beatrice must come together; only in bonding can either of them hope to find the kind of mental and emotional stimulus they crave. They are, from the first moments of the play, the perfect couple, and the audience has only to sit back and let the method of their mating reveal itself.
That laid-back approach is both the strength and, occasionally, the weakness of this production, for it creates a “Much Ado” that has some trouble switching gears into its darker side in the second half. Monette’s comic flourishes keeps things effervescent at moments when the action should be troubling (one example is a routine with slapping gloves that sends up the challenge to a duel, robbing the seriousness of Hero’s disgrace of its uglier side).
It also means a harder task for the actors, who must switch between slapstick , anger and pain for the climax to work. That it doesn’t quite – yet – is not surprising. But having said that, there are many moments to relish.
William Hutt, now in his early 80s and back from a season’s hiatus due to surgery, continues to amaze. Bounding across the stage like a youngster, dapper and handsome in a silver goatee, his Leonato proves a showstopper in the eavesdropping scene, where he gets slowly drunker on martinis as he plots to make Benedick fall for Beatrice. His consummate skill and impeccable comic timing make this scene alone worth the price of admission.
Equally magnificent is Bedford’s Benedick, who grandstands without sacrificing character and embraces the audience as his co-conspirators. It is a performance that is reminiscent of Bedford’s great roles at the fest throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and makes his Benedick likable and eccentric, allowing us to see the side that attracts Beatrice.
Henry’s Beatrice moves from a rigidity brought on by the constant battering of male suitors she holds in contempt to a fluid girlishness as she falls for Benedick; the problem is that as Henry loosens up, she also becomes a trifle too flighty, with a tremble in her voice and a skip to her walk that ring artificial. It’s a blemish in a performance that otherwise carries tremendous integrity.
Many of their scenes together are outstanding, including a final, touchingly humorous vignette at the end of the production, where they both whip out bifocals to read each other’s love letters and then begin quibbling about the contents as the light fades on them. This is a couple who will always have their own opinions, but will be the stronger for them.
Also doing a terrific job are Tom McCamus as Don John, the evil brother who almost turns this comedy into tragedy, and Stephen Ouimette, who takes on a Chaplin/Hitler routine as Constable Dogberry. Monette has made McCamus a Mafia Don, with shades of the fascisti in his black trenchcoat, cane and dark glasses.
All of it looks simply stunning against Guido Tondino’s constantly shifting set, Ann Curtis’ dazzling costumes (with the exception of Henry, whose Virginia Woolf look is too frumpy) and Michael J. Whitfield’s atmospheric shading of lights.