Let’s start with a confession. I think that “Much Ado About Nothing” is just what the name says. I don’t like the play. I don’t like the plot. I don’t like any of the characters. I understand that this play has been performed steadily over the past 400 years and that it is one of Shakespeare’s more accessible comedies, but I just don’t like it.
Having said that, I have seen it performed a few times, I saw it last night at the Folger in Washington, and I am sure I will see it again. But while I can appreciate a good performance, I am sure that my overall impression is colored by what I think of the script itself.
There is some good acting in the Folger production (see below), but the negatives far (far!) outweigh the positives, in my opinion. Here are my problems:
First, the director decided to set the play in Washington DC and display the “diversity” of Washington and especially its Caribbean-born community. Well, OK, why not? Shakespeare has been updated before. BUT…..they didn’t change the text to say that this was Washington DC. They kept talking about being in Messina. In fact there was nothing unique about the set making it Washington DC. It was really set in “anyplace” urban world, from all I could see.
Second, the play starts with the return of the military – in the play, I think it was the Sicilians against the Florentines. But in this production, what war were they coming back from? It made no sense.
Third, the diversity was weird plus. The two central women, cousins, were both played by African American actors, with a West Indian accent, as was the role of Leonato, their father/uncle. In fact, each of the female roles appeared to be played by African Americans with Caribbean accents, but the other men were not African American, and did not have Caribbean accents – I thought that the contrast and imbalance was embarrassing.
Fourth, the role of Borachio (an evil perpetrator, turned informer) is a male role, here played by a woman. But they kept the clearly male name, and called her both “fellow” and “her”, as I understood it, confusing her sexual identity for no good reason. And, because she was played by an African American woman, they had her speak with a Caribbean accent, even though she was the only of the “non-neighborhood” types to do so.
Fifth, the prince Don Pedro was played by an Asian American, who has an Asian intonation in his voice, and his brother Don John was an angry young white man (he would have been better cast as Rif in West Side Story). Etc., etc. I just thought the casting was awful.
Now, some of the performances were excellent – particularly Rachel Leslie’s Beatrice (although she was better as the first act shrew than as the out-of-the-closet lover), Roxi Victorian’s Hero (whose performance improved as time went on and her condition worsened) and Doug Brown’s Leonato. Howard Overshown’s Benedick was acceptable, although he and Beatrice seemed to have no chemistry, and his performance does not stand on its own the way Leslie’s does. The actors playing Claudio, Don Pedro and Don John, though, were totally sub-par for what you would expect at the Folger, and although Alex Perez’ Dogberry grew on me, I thought with a little more directing assistance, he could have done much more with the role. And what a waste to have talented actor Craig Wallace acting as a DJ, spinning West Indian music.
This is the third performance we have seen at the Folger since we became subscribers. And the first to disappoint. Hopefully, the remaining two this year (“Orestes” and “Hamlet”) will remind us why we bought the subscription.