"Much Ado About Nothing" @ HVSF

“Speak low if you speak love.”

Whenever I think about William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, I think of this particular line, mostly because of an encounter I had with a college professor. I was taking a Shakespeare class with a 30 year tenured professor who wore pomposity like a glove and he assigned this as our second play after The Comedy of Errors. His idea of teaching was to read through the text – himself (he probably wanted to be a performer) and discuss the great meaning of each passage, occasionally shooting out questions among the students arbitrarily.

He said this passage and stopped and said, “You know, there is a really beautiful song by George Gershwin written that is based on this one line.” Yours truly knew that to be inaccurate and piped up with complete innocence “Actually, I think it was Kurt Weill.”

“Kurt Weill, you say? Really? My goodness. I’m amazed you know this song. You’re the first student I’ve ever had who ever did. SING IT!”

That little exchange, for whatever reason, made me a favorite of the teacher and I actually subjected myself to a second semester of Shakespeare with him. The song of course is the enchanting “Speak Low” by Weill & Ogden Nash from their 1943 musical One Touch of Venus.

But aside from all that, Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare comedy. Plot machinations aside, it offers two of Shakespeare’s wittiest creations, Beatrice and Benedick. Their repartee is often the high point of the entire evening, and my first exposure was through the 1993 film adaptation with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson going to town on this delicious dialogue.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the chance to sit in on a rehearsal with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. During those three hours, I got a chance to see the actors and HVSF Artistic Director Terry O’Brien work on scenes from Pericles and Complete Works (Abridged). Last Saturday night I had the unexpected pleasure to be on hand for the opening night performance of their Much Ado on the grounds of the historic Boscobel near Cold Spring, NY.

Words do not do the Boscobel experience justice. The grounds open at 6PM, allowing patrons the chance to picnic on the lawn with a picturesque view of the Hudson River, overlooking Constitution Island, West Point and several miles of the river itself. It’s an absolute stunner. I brought my friend Dana up with me and we relaxed on lawn with other patrons, the first clear dry evening in recent memory.

At about 7:30, we are requested to clear the lawn and make our way to the tent for performance. It becomes quite clear as the lawn upon which we were sitting becomes part of the performance space, with the classic scenic design of the Man Upstairs. The tent is set-up in a modified thrust space, with a patch of dirt for the stage. The backdrop is that of the Hudson River, surrounding mountains set against the backdrop of a clear sunset.

After an amusing opening requesting monetary support (presented tongue-in-cheek as a lost 2-page play from Shakespeare’s visit to the region with Henry Hudson in 1609), the play began. Things got off to a thrilling start as Don Pedro and his men (and woman, more on that in a bit) made an entrance over the crest of the hill, walking across the lawn to the stage accompanied by pipe and drum. The audience went wild with applause when they were halfway to the stage, and only ceasing once the actors hit their marks under the tent. One of the most electrifying uses of space I have ever seen in all my years of theatregoing.

The company is uniformly excellent. Katie Hartke makes a gamine Hero, with (real-life husband) Ryan Quinn as her impassioned Claudio. The characters generally feel rather maudlin and truth be told, boring compared to the other couple, especially since the others get the best lines. However, these two actors brought enough substance to make them feel more dimensionalized and sensual than usual.

Jason O’Connell as Benedick and Nance Williamson as Beatrice trade those quips and zingers with aplomb. One of the more amusing aspects of the play are the parallel contrivances to bring both couples together; think Hero and Claudio as Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson, with Beatrice and Benedick as Miss Adelaide and Nathan Detroit. It’s a rudimentary comparison, but Much Ado About Nothing feels like a Golden Age musical with its serious legit couple and a secondary comic couple. Like Guys and Dolls, Much Ado’s two couples both function in leading capacities. O’Connell embodies Benedick with a physicality and bravado that makes me long for the opportunity to see his Falstaff. Williamson, looking uncannily like Diane Keaton on Oscar night, makes a formidable counterpart, with delicious line delivery and an elegant stage presence.

Michael Borrelli is an audience favorite as the inept, malaprop prone Dogberry, with Prentiss Standridge his comic sidekick (both giving the characters a redneck spin). Wesley Mann is formidable as Leonato. It is an utter thrill to watch Gabra Zackman onstage; here playing Margaret, who becomes a pawn in the plot to destroy Hero and Claudio’s impending nuptials.

Director John Christian Plummer has cast actress Maia Guest in the role of the villain Don John, here Dona Johana. Usually such stunt casting is circumspect, but here it works to the play’s benefit. Guest finds unexpected layers to what is nothing more than a glorified stock villain, with a feminist angle (and dare I say romantic jealousy angle as well?) Suddenly the conflict of the plot is inherently more interesting and works better than I’ve seen it before.

I’ve already credited the Lord with the scenic design, but I wanted to throw a shout out to Dan Scully for his subtle lighting design, that complements the action onstage as well as the action across the lawn. Melissa Schlactmeyer’s inventive costume design offers the production a unique look; the ladies look like they’ve stepped out of Desperately Seeking Susan with a grey and black 80s punk look. The men are a bit more traditional in their get up (and they wear the corsets this time).

As Dana and I were leaving the grounds, we remarked to one another how this particular setting and staging really enhance the story, in its complete pastoralism (and green) staging. She also said something that really hit the nail on the head about the experience. She had read the play and watched the 1993 film, which made her really interested in going with me, but admitted that this production helped her fully comprehended what was happening plotwise.

The other plus? The house is really a proper theatre disguised by a tent. So rain or shine, the show will go on. And be sure to bring a picnic (and wine) and you’re guaranteed a classy time.