Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ashland Theater Note: Much Ado About Nothing

If you were casting Much Ado About Nothing for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, you could not go wrong by assigning the role of Benedick to David Kelly. He's angular and zany like a scarecrow in a high wind, but he has a mind fast enough to keep up with Benedick's (pardon, Shakespeare's) own lightning quick wit. And he has flawless command of the perilous undercurrents of the Shakespearean line--here, mostly prose which is, I suspect, even harder to deliver than verse.

But they gave him a bathtub. Or, some sort of a Renaissance garden pond. Anyway, Kelly duly stumbled into it, to the accompanying howls from the delighted onlookers. Later he spouted water like an offshore whale. And then he bounded out, clinging to his package under the now-skintight polyester.

Every bit of it was good, satisfying physical comedy, but there is a problem here: by turning the scene over to the fountain, Kelly and the director succeeded in tossing away one of the best comic speeches* in all the canon: Benedick's astonishment, confusion, rage, evasiveness and embarrassment at the discovery that (as he is led to believe) the lady really loves him.

Many attentive observers will say I am being too harsh. Granted, when Kelly rolls out of the deep and says, "This can be no trick!" he got a laugh. But he is supposed to get a huge laugh. It's important in its own right, and it is supposed to set the audience for what follows--t0 make them ready to rollick. They were ready to rollick but because of the water, not because of the language. So Kelly more or less rattled his way through the rest of the speech while caterwauling around the stage in his dripping togs. When he got to "doth not the appetite alter?"--which should be another show-stopper, I don't think the audience noticed.

Attentive friends will recognize a common theme here: the trouble with Ashland is that they're so often unwilling to let Shakespeare by Shakespeare, just to trust the text.

I admit, "trusting the text" requires acting skill of a high order: you have to be willing to play around with pregnant pauses, Jack-Benny-like. You have to be willing to yank some lines tight and then let them loose like a coiled spring. You have to do all kinds of tricks which, in the wrong hands, will turn into portentous hamminess. But my guess is that Kelly is just the kind of guy who can do it right, and it is a shame to se him wasted in this way.

A quaint irony is that there is one part of Much Ado a that is ideally suited to pratfall comedy, and that is the Dogberry business--all that stuff about the constable and the watch. It can be falling-off-the-chair funny; I've seen it so. But it's not really in the language: just running round saying "I am an ass" gets a little boring after a while unless it is plumped up with some imaginative business. Here Ashland offers Tony DeBruno. He's another fine actor: I still have fond memories of his work in a play about the village golem, in what may have been his first season. But he's not a pratfall kind of guy. He knew where the jokes were, and he gave them all a suitable touch of delusional pomposity. But he never really threw himself into it in a way that would have been entirely suitable to the scene.

[Aside: at least they did better with the constable scenes here than Kenneth Branagh's crew did in their movie version. The Branagh game never seemed to grasp that this stuff is funny; they played it for weird, and weird is pretty much what they got.]

As the complement to Kelly's Benedick, we had Robynn Rodriguez as Beatrice. She's surely one of the all-round most ingratiating people in the company: warm-hearted and full of vitality, with just enough of an edge to keep you interested. She's also up to the rat-a-tat machine gun fire of the wit (although she did seem to have a bit of a lisp, which I don't think I ever noticed before). But for all of this, she didn't quite seem to get the jokes. Or her timing was off, or she didn't have any. It was a shame. Her natural warm-heartedness and Kelly's dynamism carried them through, but it left you longing for more.

Aside from the leads-it may be because of the difficulties in the leads that I found myself marveling over just how good, technically, so many people in this company are, or have become--in particular, Peter Macon as Don Pedro and Sarah Rutan as Hero. Skill of this order is only noticeable when it isn't there. They (and indeed, most of the company) did it so well you scarcely notice. I am a bit miffed at Don Pedro, though, for more or less throwing away one of my favorite bits of Shakepearean rhyme:
Good morrow, masters. Put your torches out.
The wolves have preyed, and look the gentle day
Before the wheels of Phoebus round about
Dapples the drowsy east with spots of gray.
Thanks to you all, and leave us, fare you well.
* For the text of "This can be no trick," offered as an audition piece, go here.

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