Much Ado About Nothing

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
At the Mount Mainsatge, Lenox, MA, Summer 1995

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

The Shakespeare and Company main stage production of "Much Ado About Nothing" is so close to perfection that it is almost impious to attempt to dissect it.. It is an organic whole, a living thing, and the appropriate response is simply applause. Director Tina Packer has been working with this text and this stage and this company for what amounts to an artistic lifetime, and the sum of all that experience adds up to a "Much Ado" that should be seen, savored, and cherished in the memory forever. Lighting designer Michael Giannitti has bathed the Company's outdoor stage with magic beams. In the ceremonial scenes, set and costume designer John Pennoyer has devised a Watteau-inspired wealth of detail stretching into the grove's leafy distance as far as the eye can travel. Packer and choreographer Susan Dibble have plotted the actors' movement through this space as one vast dance, while miraculously maintaining an impression of naturalness and spontaneity. In Ariel Bock's Beatrice and Jonathan Epstein 's Benedicke the production has a quarreling couple as downright and witty as one could wish. They display a full set of foibles along with their abundant charm. But they are clearly creatures who, seeing at a slant, also see farther and deeper than their friends -- and they are clearly born to love each other. The peculiar virtue of this production is its balance. It is almost unfair to single out any particular actor for praise. Each of them, down to the smallest of the children swelling the crowd scenes, contributes exactly as much as is appropriate to enrich the whole, and not an ego-drop more. This is the sort of seamless ensemble theatre lovers dream about, the kind that takes years to assemble. The clowns of the Watch, led by Jonathan Croy 's Dogberry and Timothy Saukiavicus 's Verges, are funny because they are honestly trying to do a neighborly job; and even funnier because they don't resort to extraneous shtick to cue the audience's laughter. The relationship between Hero (Kristin Wold) and Claudio (Allyn Burrows) is the subject of "Much Ado"'s main plot, and for once these usually shallow figures have dimensionality. The pair's pain and rage at betrayal is given full emotional weight, even at the risk of making their eventual reconciliation impossible. It is the power of music and ritual that allows them to forgive and forget, in a stunning graveyard scene of mystical transmutation. Packer stages it to resemble emblems out of the middle ages: the scourging of a saint, the consecration of a knight, a baptism. Count Claudio is stripped of rank and raiment while a choir sings, and then, wrapped in white for the wedding that -- because he has surrendered his self will and his power to choose, and sworn to cherish his wife whoever she may be -- symbolizes his rebirth. The sole oddity in this superlative but quite traditional production grows out of the director's focus on the "silencing" of women in "a society where women have power only through their alliance with powerful men." Packer has decided that in the place of the bastard brother Don John, the character of the aggrieved sibling who is embittered and jealous of Don Pedro's monopoly of the family's wealth and power should be a sister, Donna Gianna. Corinna May plays this virago with a cracking bullwhip and a blood-curdling snarl. Ms. May's skill makes the director's notion plausible, though not persuasive. Destroying the reputation and the life of Hero, a young woman who has never harmed her, breaking up Claudio's marriage simply because Claudio is one of her resented brother's buddies: this seems a pretty roundabout way for a villain to punish her brother. Whether John or Gianna, Shakespeare might have given him/her a speech or two more by way of justification. But suppose those speeches had Edmund the Bastard's eloquence? "Much Ado" would be "About Something Else", and the play would have to end not in a double wedding and a dance but as "Lear" does, in a heap of dead bodies. Surely it is to consider too curiously to consider so? Donna Gianna is led on in chains at the end , her face bruised and bloody. Shakespeare has his villain disappear once the plot is set in motion,. The best comment on that is Benedicke's : "Play, music...think not on him (or her?) until tomorrow."