Claudio: Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signor Leonato?
Benedick: I noted her not, but I looked on her.
Much Ado About Nothing is a joke. That is, the title is a pun. It’s like the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and George pitch a show to some TV execs, who ask what the show is supposed to be about. Nothing?! Who would watch that? In Shakespeare’s day matters of the heart (and the comedies that represent them) are trivial, light, ephemeral business that don’t deserve too much attention. Somebody sings, there are dancers — and yet when kids are in love they get so serious about it! Romeo and Juliet is tragic precisely because the play started out as a comedy, but rather than getting over the teen-angst, high school drama and getting on to getting it on, the characters end up killing each other. It’s like My So Called Life all of a sudden morphs into The Wire.
Much Ado is built on this tension between keeping the mood light while injecting enough drama to keep your attention. I have given my opinion of how Shakespeare must be done to be passable in several places. If you’re interested, they are in reverse order here, here, here, and here. In brief, let me reiterate that to do right by the bard you must speak in verse and in temper. Like Hamlet says, “do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.” If this is good advice for tragedy, its an imperative for comedy. Let the laughs not be overwrought! saith the bard. Let the guys and girls be jerks, but not too much!
The Boomerang Theater’s treatment of Much Ado usually falls on the right side of keeping it light. This is a good thing; it is the sufficient — if not necessary — condition for an enjoyable production. The acting, particularly David Townsend as Benedick, can be quite good, even if sometimes the non-principle actors can be more in word than matter. The costumes, sets, lighting, and music are pleasing, if not exactly breathtaking. With one exception, the interest and novelty of this production lies in the use of contemporary (21st century) songs and dances in scenes originally set aside for Elizabethan songs and dances. At one point a minor character sings Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,’” and what would have been court Galliards or cinquepaces are transformed into line dances done to the pop stylings of the sort of 21st century diva known to wear a meat dress.
The one big exception to this thoroughly adequate production of Much Ado is the Pythonesque Dogberry played by Spencer Aste. His choices are a little mystifying given their setting, as if a surrealist from interbellum Europe constructed a steam punk time machine and dropped into sixteenth century London to mess with the minds of the locals. The character is usually played as an analogue to the buffoons on Reno 911. This Dogberry struts around the stage like an impish Colonel Klink putting caramel candies into everyone’s mouths. (This is particularly incongruous when it happens to his social betters in the world of the play and/or to an audience member.) However, I must admit that on the whole Aste’s performance works to shoot a jolt of real juice into proceedings.
Much Ado About Nothing
The Secret Theater 4402 23rd St Long Island City
Through March 18th