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Reviewed by:
  • Much Ado about Nothing
  • Peter Kanelos
Much Ado about Nothing Presented by the Aquila Theatre Company at the La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla, California. January 17-February 19, 2006. Directed by Robert Richmond. Design by Peter Meineck and Robert Richmond. Lighting by Peter Meineck. Costumes by Megan Bowers. Music by Anthony Cochrane. With Craig Wroe (Leonato), Kathryn Merry (Hero), Jessica Boevers (Beatrice), Kenn Sabberton (Don Pedro, Borachio), Anthony Cochrane (Benedick), Louis Butelli (Don John, Dogberry, Friar Francis), Marwa Bernstein (Margaret), John Lavelle (Verges).

The Aquila Theatre Company, based in New York, brought to Southern California its Much Ado About Nothing, a production that had run off-Broadway for six months, garnering quite a bit of critical attention and acclaim. Taking its cue from spy films and television shows of the 1960s—The Avengers, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., early Bond, and The Saint—this highly-stylized Much Ado located itself in a world of steel-rimmed bowler hats and leather cat-suits. The most conspicuous prop, an original, red Mini Cooper, remained onstage throughout. A thirty-foot-high Union Jack formed the backdrop of an otherwise bare thrust stage. Musical numbers were loungy and psychedelic. The director, Robert Richmond, was intent on evoking his chosen milieu; he was assisted by his actors, led ably by Anthony Cochrane (Benedick) and Jessica Boevers (Beatrice), who postured, purred, and prowled where appropriate. The cast was fully invested in the spy genre conceit, even to the point of giving Margaret an over-the-top Russian accent. This production was charismatic and energetic, certainly the key to its popular success; but its charming spunkiness was also its particular indulgence and fault.

Much Ado About Nothing provides a setting that is especially elastic, even among Shakespeare's highly flexible festive comedies. Messina is a blank slate, suggesting the Mediterranean, but only obliquely. The play's schematic is simple: soldiers return from conflict to a place of repose and festivity, only to find that malignity has followed along. Thus, the play can be, and has been, transferred to myriad settings: the Texas frontier, post-World War I Sicily, the Indian Raj. Yet reconfiguring it as a spy story (or spy story spoof; the Aquila production takes an uncertain stance towards its models) taxes too much. This Much Ado was not set in a novel locale, but relocated to an unfamiliar (and inhospitable) genre. It is one thing to move Much Ado to colonial India, for example, quite another to re-imagine it as a Bollywood musical. In Aquila's production, we witnessed [End Page 95] a transfer not from early modern Messina to the London of the 1960s, but from Elizabethan drama to a mid-twentieth-century subgenre of film and television. The company exchanged not settings, but vehicles. The shift was only half-achieved, and we were left with a hybrid; the language and story were retained, but the concept—so totalizing, so intent on drawing our attention—superimposed qualities upon the production and expectations upon the audience that distorted Shakespeare's play. The program notes identified the central pun around which the play is built: "The word 'nothing' would have been pronounced more like 'noting' and with this in mind we started to see a play where 'noting' in the form of overheard conversations, rumors, gossip, observations, and the actual taking of notes creates the play's dramatic energy, both comic and tragic." It is not difficult to imagine the conference-table conversation where the leap from noting to spying was made and how this conceit evolved. Don John, impenetrably maleficent, is after all a sort of cartoon villain, and Louis Butelli played him with criminal aplomb. "Hey Nonny Nonny," nonsensical and sexy, converts brilliantly to syrupy sixties pop. Yet the points where Much Ado truly aligned with Aquila's concept strike one as happy coincidences rather than inspired design.

At the core of Much Ado is an inquest into the nature of love and desire and consequently into the twists and turns of romantic relationships. Yet although spy flicks may bristle with sexuality, they demand a cool attitude towards love and emotional attachment. Perhaps made most clear by the...


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