Maggie Siff and Jonathan Cake in a scene from Much Ado About Nothing
(Photo credit: Henry Grossman)
Since 2009 director Arin Arbus, has directed one Shakespeare play a year for Theatre for a New Audience, Othello, Measure for Measure, Macbeth and The Taming of the Shrew, and shown how to make the Bard come alive in clean, vigorous productions. Along the way she has raised John Douglas Thompson to the stature of classical tragedian. Now she has staged a delightful Much Ado About Nothing with a sparkling performance by British actor Jonathan Cake that makes Benedick, the perennial bachelor, into the star of the show. That is not to say that Maggie Siff (TNFA’s 2012 The Taming of the Shrew) as Beatrice, his adversary in their “Merry War,” does not impress with her wit, but it is Cake who steals the show in every one of his scenes and makes us await with eagerness each of his entrances.
Up until now Cake has been best known for roles in which he plays devious and heartless seducers and betrayers such as Jack Favell in the latest television remake of Rebecca, Jason opposite Fiona Shaw’s Medea on Broadway in 2002-03 and the slimy Iachimo in Lincoln Center’s production of Cymbeline in 2007-08. Here in a leading comic role, Cake demonstrates a timing and a variety that makes Benedick into a very complex character of many gifts. His delight in words is infectious: double entendres, left-handed compliments, insults. This Benedict is three dimensional in ways most actors aren’t and he suggested a back story only hinted at by the play.
Much Ado About Nothing takes place in Sicily and Arbus’ production is set just before World War I. Leonato, Governor of Messina, receives word that his friend Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and his soldiers will visit for a month. With him are his officers Benedick, a veteran soldier from Padua, and Benedick’s younger friend Claudio a Florentine. Claudio instantly falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero, while Benedict and Beatrice, Leonato’s niece and ward, both of whom have sworn off marriage, pick up their war of words, a battle of the sexes that has been going on since the last time they met. Claudio and Hero become engaged to be married, while Beatrice and Benedick continue their sparring.
And then things take a serious turn. Don Pedro’s bastard brother, the jealous and malicious Don John, stages a scene in the moonlight to convince Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero is unfaithful. When confronted with this “seeming” evidence in a public humiliation, the much maligned Hero faints, and Beatrice and Benedick suddenly find themselves on the same side. Beatrice tells Benedick she could love him if he will kill Claudio for her for slandering her cousin. Appalled that he should kill his friend even though he believes that he has wronged Hero, Benedick swears to challenge Claudio for the sake of her love. The rest of the play works out these complications resulting in a series of happy endings.
From the moment that Don Pedro and Claudio vow to expose Hero, Arbus turns the play into a tragicomedy which adds weight to what is often enacted as a very light comedy. This is appropriate for at any moment the story could become tragic if allowed to run its course. Along with honor and virginity, things one still fought over in 1910, the pre-World War I setting makes perfect sense. The simple set by Riccardo Hernandez, a bare stage aside from a tree and a swing, allows the audience to pay attention to the word play. Constance Hoffman’s period-appropriate costumes designed with a limited palette (blue and white or red and white for the women, and uniforms of either beige or blue for the men) are in keeping with this subtle visual approach to a play that is about extravagant word games and emotions, whether real or feigned. The vivid lighting by Donald Holder moves from sunny afternoons to moonlit scenes and back again. Michael Friedman’s original music adds to the lovely mood of the production.
Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy which contrasts mature, enduring love with rash young love, and requires various acting styles from the different couples. Siff’s Beatrice is never bested by Benedick’s jibes – it is always a draw. She holds her own opposite Cake’s bravura take on her romantic adversary. Michelle Beck and Matthew Amendt as Hero and Claudio are rash young lovers, impetuous in falling in love, and just as quickly ready to fall out of love. They are surrounded by the grounding and sober performances of Robert Langdon Lloyd’s Leonato and Graham Winton’s Don Pedro, who both bring a sense of authority to the community of Messina. For low humor, John Christopher Jones’s Constable Dogberry with his malapropisms legal mumbo-jumbo and John Keating as his equally mentally-challenged assistant Verges are delightful. Paul Niebanck as Don John’s spiteful follower and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as Hero’s girlish and wide-eyed attendant are notable members of the large cast. Veteran actor Peter Maloney shows his range playing Leonato’s brother Antonio, a Sexton and a member of the Night Watch.
Shakespeare may have called his comedy Much Ado About Nothing but in the hands of Arin Arbus, it becomes a meaningful dialogue on love and friendship. Heading the fine cast is Jonathan Cake in a performance as Benedick, the man who will not be married, that is one to savor for all of the flavors that he obtains from the text.
Much Ado About Nothing (through April 6, 2013)
Theatre for a New Audience, The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.Dukeon42.org