Shakespeareans Open 10th Season; Bosco Brightens Fair 'Much Ado'
Three romantic comedies came from Shakespeare's pen about 1600: Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Exact datings have not yet been established; but, on internal evidence, I should say that the marvelous Twelfth Night would not have been possible without prior experimental exercises represented by the uneven other two.
Still, Much Ado is a better work than As You Like It. What is good about it is the material invented by Shakespeare himself. The central jealousy plot surrounding Claudio and Hero, which the playwright took from older sources, is paltry stuff indeed; it served as a mere clothesline. The play is a minor masterpiece only because of the presence of the comic pair Beatrice and Benedick, together with the farcical night watch and its leader Dogberry--all freshly minted creatures straight out of Shakespeare's imagination. How astute a critic Berlioz was in deciding what parts of the play to use in composing his last opera Beatrice et Benedict!
In choosing Much Ado to open its tenth anniversary season, the American Shakespeare Festival is reviving a play it already presented in 1957. The earlier production was laid in Spanish-American Texas of the 19th century; and, although it boasted a memorable Benedick in Alfred Drake, it suffered from the ridiculous casting of Katharine Hepburn as Beatrice. This time, wiser heads have prevailed in placing the play in Renaissance Italy, where it belongs. Will Steven Armstrong's costumes could be improved upon, but his settings are charming--especially the gold furnishings and double arch framing a retractable panel, against a stunning turquoise cyclorama.
Nevertheless, this production too is seriously flawed by the imbalance of its Beatrice and Benedick. These two "never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them." Their encounters can have their proper effect only when the duelers are evenly matched. I recall a production with Rosemary Harris and Barry Morse, when brilliant wit met brilliant wit and deft thrusts elicited bright ripostes.
Bosco Stands Out
Here, however, Philip Bosco's Benedick virtually walks off with the show. He radiates valor, virility, and vibrancy. He has a ringing voice with a fine feel for Shakespearean language. He knows how to move, and he conveys many subtleties through his careful control of facial muscles. Don Pedro (warmly played by Douglas Watson) tells us how "spirited" Beatrice is; but, alas!, as Jacqueline Brookes plays her she is quite devoid of sparkle. If she "speaks poniards" they are blunt-tipped indeed; and we are witnessing no combat at all.
Frank G. Converse turns the young lover Claudio into an adolescent booby; as Hero, the object of his affections, Anne Draper could not be more colorless (much of the trouble with her, admittedly, is Shakespeare's fault). Patrick Hines contributes a hearty, portly Leonato, while Todd Drexel's Conrade takes a prize for atrocious diction.
Nicholas Martin brings a Freudian interpretation to the role of the arch-villain Don John. Dressed in black, he makes up for his short stature by carrying a riding crop and stamping his foot for authority; much of the time he is a slimy, nasty little boy given to fits.
The farcical constable Dogberry is amusing, but there is much more humor than Rex Everhart has yet found in the part, and his voice does not project too well. His side-kick Verges is played by Geddeth Smith with a Maine backwoods accent.
Director Allen Fletcher seems to have had a consistent playing style in mind, but he let his enthusiasm and inventiveness run away with him from time to time. The garden scene, for example, in which a trio of fellows intentionally allow the hidden Benedick to overhear their conversation is vastly overdirected; all four players give open throttle to mugging and hamming (and, since it is evening, why has Tharon Musser lit the stage with a blaze of light?).
Fletcher is to be commended for retaining Balthazar's two songs, though Robert Benedict quite understandably cannot sing them so well as Russell Oberlin did in the 1957 production. (Since the singer carries a lute, why does the off-stage harpsichord employ its "lute stop" only for the second song?) The director has, in fact, incorporated quite a lot of music (composed by Conrad Susa); and musicians appear on stage to play the cembalo, flute, recorder, and viola da gamba. (Benedick, however, ought to be intelligent enough not to pick up a transverse flute and try to end-blow it like a recorder). There is also a good deal of dancing (choreographed by William Burdick), but this--at least early in the show's run--was pretty sloppy.
Among the many extras peopling the stage, one stands out: Theodore Sorel (I hope I have the right name). Although he has only a handful of words to say ("It is, my lord," or something like that), he is in evidence much of the time. He dances with sure rhythm, moves with exceeding grace, and poses attractively. He is an object lesson in how positive a contribution an all-but-mute bit-player can make to a Shakespearean production.
(Ed. Note: Reviews of the other two productions will appear in the next issues. The drive to the handsome Shakespeare Festival Theatre on the picturesque Housatonic River in Stratford, Conn., takes three hours via the Massachusetts Turnpike and Exit 53 from Merritt Parkway. All performances begin promptly at two o'clock and eight o'clock. There are free picnic facilities on the grounds.)