Last year, Arin Arbus directed a wonderful Taming of the Shrew for TFANA and this season she returns with her star Maggie Siff for Much Ado About Nothing, an appropriate, complicated companion piece. But where Shrew succeeded because it treated the text with the appropriate amount of irony, Much Ado falters because it fails to address the darkness in Shakespeare’s play. Marjorie Garber notes that “although [it] is formally a comedy, [it] is full of dark moments, and often threatens to veer into tragedy.” It is layered “with a constant subtext of unarticulated pain and loss.”
The young lovers at the periphery, Claudio (Matthew Amendt) and Hero (Michelle Beck), for example, are plagued by male sexual jealousy—Claudio twice questions his relationship with Hero and at their wedding he calls her a “rotten orange.” What kind of love can we expect from these characters when one can so quickly and so easily be thrown into doubt? Later, Beatrice (Ms. Siff), in a rare, chilling moment of succinctness, asks Benedick (Jonathan Cake) to prove his love for her: “Kill Claudio.”
Romeo and Juliet, it could be argued, is a tragedy that often threatens to veer into comedy, but this generic balance is almost always acknowledged in production; here, we are given a one-note, jubilant, boisterous Much Ado, one that blasts through any key scenes that may threaten the festivities. Most surprisingly, Hero’s reunion with Claudio—a devastating moment that rivals the similar one in The Winter’s Tale—is played so quickly that we hardly realize it has happened before Beatrice and Benedick elbow their way to the foreground to continue their game of blasé one-upmanship.
Still, this is not entirely fair. Ms. Arbus’ Much Ado, though questionable in its interpretation of the text, is undeniably fun, a Shakespearean romp stocked with first-rate classical actors. Ms. Siff does not shine as Beatrice as much as she did with Kate, but she is certainly sharp and quick enough for the part. Mr. Cake, who begins hesitantly, relying too much on his hands, soon falls comfortably into Benedick; in particular, his response to the failed wedding—“This looks not like a nuptial”—is handled with masterful comic timing. And Mr. Amendt brings a depth to Claudio that is not easy, for he is not the deepest of Shakespearean romantic heroes.
Much Ado is the only play by the Bard we will see at TFANA this season. I do wish it had been a smarter production, but those are not easy to come by and in the meantime this will certainly do.