Considering how many Shakespeare plays there are, it's funny how you start to get a sense of their periodicity if you stick around long enough in one place. Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Macbeth appear in some form or another at least every other year (we're having a special on Macbeths this year; up to three versions and counting). A Midsummer Night's Dream crops up like mushrooms every summer. The dust on Timon of Athens could form something a lot scarier than a bunny. Ditto Troilus and Cressida or The Winter's Tale, which we've seen recently largely because they've reflected our deep fears about war and mindless anger. Then there's Much Ado About Nothing, which should spring up more often because it's sprightly and sharp, but the last time it got a big production out here was the Rep's 2001 offering, back when the Roda stage was so new that every show had to use every bell and whistle. Now it's on the CalShakes stage, and a fine example of how different directorial visions can produce very different effects.
The 2001 Rep version, coming as it did right on the heels of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, was staged to emphasize the aspects of the story that have to do with men coming back from a war and trying to reintegrate into polite society. It was an edgy production, stark and full of menace. The 2003 CalShakes version, on the other hand, has been angled so we get a better look at the tango-like push and pull between the pairs of lovers; it's much saucier and to my eye more emotionally engaging than its predecessor.
The design of both shows, interestingly, centers on a square pool of water, but to very different ends. In the Rep production the pool was the scene of Don John's measured, angry ablutions as he laid his trap for the lovers Claudio and Hero; Don John might as well have been washing in blood. This time the class-clownish Benedick is the one washing in the pool, and later his sparring partner Beatrice walks blindly into the pool, fully dressed, in a comic paroxysm of romantic feeling. Here the water is a cheerful symbol, as are the masks at the ball where Don Pedro woos Hero for Claudio, the modern costumes in their shiny fabrics, the oversized calla lilies behind which first Benedick and then Beatrice hide as they listen to their friends spin stories about the great love each bears the other. Overall, this version is not only more blithe and sunny, but it's also more cohesive. The stories of the two pairs of lovers finding and losing and finding each other hang together far more convincingly.
But while it might be impossible for another show to have the searing impact of last month's Measure for Measure at CalShakes, director Peter DuBois does manage to create some wrenching images, especially the one where Claudio, convinced he has caused Hero's death, collapses at her monument. Composer Gina Leishman's lovely tango music and the associated dancing reflects the tightrope lovers walk, and while there are almost too many small, well-played character moments to count, one particular one that sticks is James Carpenter's beautifully noble Don Pedro quietly leaving the nuptial festivities, his love unrequited, his loneliness achingly palpable.
Other than MacHomer in October, which will feature one man doing all the characters in one of the aforementioned Macbeths based on The Simpsons, Much Ado is the last show of the regular CalShakes season. It's been a tremendous season for CalShakes, exciting and assured; it bodes so well for whatever the company has to offer that I wholeheartedly recommend not only that people catch this production but consider subscribing next season if they don't want to miss accessible Shakespeare with a lively modern twist.
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