All those giddy young lovers in Shakespeare’s pastoral comedies have a regrettable tendency to blur into one another. Except, of course, for Beatrice and Benedick, that quick-witted, quarrelsome pair in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater, favorites with Gotham auds, would seem ideally cast (by helmer Jack O’Brien) as those squabbling lovers, in the summer’s first Public Theater production of Shakespeare in the Park. Strange to say, this perfect romance begins on an awkward note, not really clicking until deep into the second act — just in time to restore our faith in these enchanting lovers.
It’s tempting to credit this restorative power to a creative team with the singular expertise it takes to turn an outdoor stage into a magical place.
John Lee Beatty’s storybook setting for the Sicilian province of Messina is like a childhood memory of Grandma and Grandpa’s big old house in the country. Bathed in the warmth of Jeff Croiter’s lighting design, this lovely villa has a sun-washed stone facade set off by tall, gracefully arched windows, and is bordered by a lush garden with fruit-bearing trees and colorful vegetables that are forever in season. All this, plus balconies and terraces where a trio of musicians periodically assemble to serenade guests with charming folk songs composed by David Yazbek.
Leonato is governor of this pretty kingdom, and in this enviable role, John Glover is the very model of an honorable authority figure — patrician profile, lustrous silver hair, formal black suit with snowy white linen. (Nods to costumer Jane Greenwood and wigmaker Tom Watson for their character-enhancing contributions.) And when he speaks, it’s the voice of wisdom.
Leonato’s household — his amiable older brother, Antonio (David Manis), his virginal daughter Hero (Ismenia Mendes), his free-spirited niece Beatrice (Rabe) and their saucy servants — seems a bit too eager to seize on the broad comic style of opera buffa But everyone springs smartly to life when the noble Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, arrives in the person of (how lucky can we get!) Brian Stokes Mitchell. Cue the musicians and let the singing begin.
Without much ado, the lovely Hero and the equally lovely Claudio (Jack Cutmore-Scott), a young soldier in the service of the Prince, fall instantly in love and make plans to marry. Although the cruel sabotaging of this union serves as a major plot point, the young lovers are such insipid characters that we’re happily distracted by the musicianship of Steel Burkhardt, the vocalizing of Mitchell and John Pankow’s inspired comic turn as Dogberry, the self-important, language-mangling Constable of the watch.
As for romance, we’d much rather follow the “merry war” between those sophisticates Beatrice and Benedick (Linklater), who are constantly engaged in outdoing one another in “a skirmish of wits.” But alarm bells rather than fireworks go off when this Benedick first bounds onstage to engage his Beatrice in romantic banter.
Slender and boyish to begin with, Linklater is further diminished by a little-toy-soldier costume, a ridiculous full-face beard and an adolescent comic attitude. But if his Benedick doesn’t exactly live up to the romantic soldier-scholar of tradition, Rabe’s rather gauche Beatrice is much too blustery for the slyly seductive “Lady Disdain” and her sexually provocative teasing.
Both thesps are masters at the art of elocution, however, and their relief is almost palpable when they can finally drop the juvenile banter and get serious. Having been duped by their friends into falling in love, Beatrice and Benedick are free at last to analyze their true feelings and to decide that, yes, they really are ideal mates. It was an awfully long time coming, but in the end the match was made — and it was magic.