“There are occasions when the title of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” seems all too apposite. Such is the unhappy case with theTheater for a New Audience production that opened on Sunday night at the Duke on 42nd Street, spreading mirth only sporadically, thanks primarily to a stylish performance by the British actor Jonathan Cake as an effervescent, audience-beguiling Benedick, a mismatched foil for the sparkle-free Beatrice of Maggie Siff.
Set in Sicily, in keeping with the text, but updated to the years just before World War I, the production is dominated by Mr. Cake’s commanding performance as an exuberant Benedick, whose delight in denigrating the appeal of the married state we quickly come to see as a ruse protecting a heart inwardly beating hard in its desire for companionship.
This becomes clear during the scene in which Benedick lists the myriad attractions any woman worthy of him must possess: addressing the audience with a conspiratorial air Mr. Cake’s Benedick begins in a jocular tone, as if he’s quite sure of his arguments against the possibility of any woman attaining sufficient perfection.
Soon, however, his manner subtly shifts, until it is touchingly apparent, from the hungry glow suffusing his eyes and the spirit with which he describes his ideal, that this fantastical woman is the long-cherished dream of an ardent if suppressed desire. The model, of course, is the sharp-witted, handsome woman he professes to particularly despise: the formidable Beatrice.
Ms. Siff, who also starred in this company’s “Taming of the Shrew,” certainly possesses the noble aspect and natural beauty that are on Benedick’s long checklist. But she delivers Beatrice’s tart aspersions with an air of determined sourness that doesn’t suggest either the delight she surreptitiously takes in sparring with Benedick, or the underlying admiration that inspires it. (Too often she seems almost to be returning to full shrew mode.) As a result Mr. Cake establishes a more fluent and affectionate rapport with the audience than he does with Ms. Siff’s less buoyant Beatrice.
The combative romance between these two would-be lovers is not the whole of “Much Ado About Nothing” of course. But many of the supporting performances lack delicacy and polish. Claudio, whose instantaneous love for Hero is contrasted with the more wary wrangling of Beatrice and Benedick, is portrayed with stolid simplicity and little palpable feeling by Matthew Amendt. He’s well matched, alas, in his emphatic rendering of his character by Michelle Beck’s bluntly drawn Hero, who is notably short on pathos and vulnerability.
As Don John, the bastard brother of the prince Don Pedro (Graham Winton), Saxon Palmer is more neurotic than truly sinister, although his imitation of Richard III is among the few moments of fresh comic inspiration in the production. Others are provided by the splendid stupidity of John Christopher Jones’s Dogberry, whose cracked, quavering voice adds an extra layer of humor to his mangling of the English language.
Dogberry’s bumbling sidekick, John Keating’s Verges, has some frisky funny business too, and he’s got a face made for comedy (although he does commendably too in the serious role of Father Francis, presiding over the abortive nuptials of Claudio and Hero). And while the role is minuscule, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse makes the most of her few minutes onstage as Hero’s attendant, Ursula, spritzing this usually unnoticeable character with a dithery, dizzy flair.
But with the central roles mostly over- or underplayed (Robert Langdon Lloyd’s Leonato is heavy on the angry bluster), the elaborate on-again off-again marriage of Claudio and Hero stirs little interest, and the verbal fencing of Beatrice and Benedick provides only intermittent distraction. You begin to feel that the play is top-heavy with plot and deficient in memorable poetry.
The program features a series of epigraphs from various Shakespeare scholars and directors that are dappled with words we don’t usually associate with rom-coms: “nihilistic” (Harold Bloom), “expressions of aggression or sexual hostility” (the scholar Carol Cook). The British director Trevor Nunn huffs that he has yet to see a production “done with sufficient seriousness.” Ms. Arbus’s version probably wouldn’t entirely satisfy him on that front or several others, but not for lack of trying.
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