The Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing is big and ambitious. Director Ethan McSweeny uses his setting – Cuba in the 1930s – as an opportunity to fill the stage with gorgeous sets and production numbers. Shakespeare’s dialogue, full of delicious deceit, is an opportunity for the cast to go for broke with terrific physical comedy. But when a production goes big like this, not every idea sticks, and there are times where broad, unlikable caricatures derail the entire play. Weaker stretches do not completely undermine Much Ado, as its strengths are too infectiously fun.
Traditionally, the play is set in Messina, a coastal Sicily town that serves as gateway between the island and mainland Italy. I’m glad McSweeny and his team switched the setting to a Cuban sugar plantation; I once spent a day in Messina, and aside from teaching a homeless woman to play liar’s poker, I have few positive memories. The stage is a massive courtyard, complete with a fountain and picaresque balconies.
Don Pedro (David Emerson Toney) and his soldiers spend a holiday in Messina after victory over Don Pedro’s brother John (Matthew Saldivar). This gives two sets of lovers an opportunity to develop their precarious affections. Benedick (Derek Smith) and Beatrice (Karthryn Meisle) already know each other, partaking in a “merry war” of wit and devastating insults. Claudio (Ryan Garbayo), on the other hand, falls in love with Hero (Kate Hurster) the moment he lays eyes on her, conspiring to win her hand. Don John seeks to ruin the lives of the lovers – he’s quite a misanthrope – as well as the life of Leonato (Adrian Sparks), Hero’s father.
Resistance and eventual acquiescence to love is what drives Much Ado About Nothing, both in terms of its tension and comedy. Smith has a memorable speech where he opines on his disgust for Beatrice, noting how an eternity in hell would be a more than fun time spent with her. Still, the funniest sequence happens early in the play, where Benedick hides from Don Pedro and his men. They are trying to trick Benedick into falling in love with Beatrice, and the dueling subterfuge is gleefully idiotic. I already knew Smith was an accomplished actor, but had no idea he is also a gifted physical comedian. His inept improvisations are the source of the play’s biggest laughs. Beatrice is the victim of a similar trick, and while Hurster lacks Smith’s timing, she makes up for it in a way I wouldn’t dare reveal.
By pairing the two best scenes in the play’s first half, the second half suffers accordingly. The introduction of Dogberry (Ted van Griethuysen) and Verges (Floyd King), the local constable and his deaf sidekick, is a terminally unfunny disaster. Van Griethuysen and King are funny, talented actors, so it’s embarrassing to see them in roles defined by tired shtick and silly costumes. Van Griethuysen literally chews his way through the role, as if an unpleasant oral fixation is the solution for his undeveloped character. As Leonato, Sparks adds some class when the play takes a dark turn and he rages against the loss of Hero’s innocence; alongside Lawrence Redmond as a Friar, Sparks saves the play. Dogberry and Verges nearly squander the terrific first half, so the insertion of real heartache is a welcome alternative to their buffoonery.
Much Ado About Nothing was recently extended to January 7, which will give audiences opportunities to enjoy the Cuba-inspired flourishes. Choreographed by Marcos Santana, the dance numbers are lively and eye-popping. The supporting cast performs traditional Cuban music, complete with guitars and heartfelt vocals. Through complex entanglements, Shakespeare’s reflections on loyalty and self-denial apply to those of us who are falling in love, or out of it. His comedy will always be relevant, but whether it’s through slapstick or lavish costumes, McSweeny makes the play terrifically entertaining.
Much Ado About Nothing is at Sidney Harmon Hall until January 7. Buy tickets here!