Sunday, June 23, 2013

Trial by disdain, judgment by dishonor: EclecticPond's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

The granddaddy of all battle-of-the-sexes comedies ends the season of EclecticPond Theatre Company at the Irvington Lodge.

"Much Ado About Nothing," whose very title is part of the vast trove of imperishable phrases William Shakespeare bequeathed to the English language, weaves the feisty courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, two young well-born Italians, together with the initially smoother, but seriously interrupted, romance of a couple of their peers, Claudio and Hero.

It's a wise comedy that received an occasionally wise interpretation in the production's final performance Saturday night. In a program note, director Polly L. Heinkel supports well her placing of the action after World War I, so you just have to ignore references to the latest fashion in doublets or the threat to draw swords: In time travel, there are lots more metaphors. At any rate, the post-war atmosphere applies; love is in the air once again, as it was in the 1920s in song and story. And the vagueness of the place (presumably America) is matched by Shakespeare's own indefiniteness.

What is a little more unsettling is that, apart from some plausibly rendered gender-shifting with the characters of Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, and Leonato (here "Leonata"), governor of Messina, Sicily, there is one that jars: The character who engenders all the plot's evil is a woman. She's still called Don John, but is now the sister of Don Pedro. We are meant to take her apparently as the type of hard-bitten prefeminist who carries out her deep resentments on innocent people, rather than  the stereotype of the embittered bastard brother whose lack of legitimacy gnaws away at him.

Despite some aptly chilling notes in Elysia Rohn's portrayal, she had the thankless task of trying to lend Don John much more than nuisance value, driving the serious side of the plot. And what damage she does, getting the innocent Hero's betrothed Claudio and Don Pedro set against the bride, pulverizing the nuptial ceremony and sidelining the eventually successful effort to get them together!

There was great warmth and humanity in the progress of this difficult romance in the performances of Jeremy Grimmer and Kate Homan. Some of the mutual exchange of insults early in the play could have been savored more, but the sharpness of  the couple's initial opposition was clear.  Grimmer and Homan had to undertake too much physical comedy in the two scenes where they eavesdrop on what's being said about them as their friends set them up to think better of each other.  But they restored some balance to the roles in the scenes where Beatrice and Benedick's rapport becomes irresistible.

The Irvington Lodge stage is a noisy, multileveled place. EclecticPond's stomping ground was literally that in this production. The way the inept law-enforcement team stumbles into discovery of Don John's plot to slander Hero was heavy on physical bumbling, Keystone Kops style writ large.
A certain level of that suits the outrageousness of Dogberry's malapropisms and elaborately misplaced self-importance, but Ben Schuetz's twitchinesss and tics and his daring collisions with Zach Stonerock as the second-in-commnad, Verges, felt overdone. Cast into the shadows was the accidental verbal wit the role is loaded with.

The two roles subject to wholly successful gender-switching were well-filled: Sarah Holland Froelke's dignified Leonata and Lisa Anderson's Don Pedro. The latter is better described as a "trouser role," a familiar enough device in opera, because Pedro remains a man, and Anderson came across as a take-charge male authority figure. There was something a little lacking in ferocity, however, as well as in Claudio's rejection of Hero, at the wedding crisis. 

David Marlowe seemed too caught up in Shakespeare's net of words when called upon to display anger. He was better as the ardent suitor and, ultimately, the contrite bridegroom, humbly overjoyed to have the exonerated Hero presented to him. Meagan Matlock was the picture of Hero's radiant innocence, cruelly victimized until that always touching restoration scene points the way to at least two happy unions at the end.

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