Much Ado About Nothing

At Startford, Conn., through Sept. 8

Question: "What play of Shakespeare deals with jealousy aroused by a traitor out of pure hatred?" Answer: "Othello, of course." True; but Shakespeare had also treated this subject previously, for it is the main theme of Much Ado About Nothing. And he would return to it again, with self-interest substituted for pure hatred, in Cymbeline. The material for all three variations on the theme came from earlier sources.

In quick succession Shakespeare turned out three romantic comedies around 1600: Much Ado, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. The last is by far the best; but the second best of Shakespeare--as of Brutus--is impressive. Still, the serious main story of Hero and Claudio in Much Ado is pallid stuff, and is based more on accident and coincidence than a Hardy novel. Shakespeare obviously took this tale just as a frame to hang some original fun on. What impresses us (as it did Berlioz in fashioning his last opera) is the sparkling and witty comedy of Beatrice and Benedick, along with the wonderful farce of the constable Dogberry and his night watch.

The production that opened yesterday at the American Shakespeare Festival is controversial with a vengeance, for co-directors John Houseman and Jack Landau have changed Shakespeare's old Sicilian locale to 19th-century Spanish-American Texas. (This is not a wholly new idea, for the Brattle Theatre production here two summers ago was laid in 19th-century Spain.) Rouben Ter-Arutunian has designed a handsome and versatile two-level residencia as well as a dazzling batch of costumes liberally provided with holsters and pistols. And Virgil Thomson has written some colorful incidental music, partly original and partly borrowed (e.g. "The Mexican Hat Dance").

The emphasis of this production is clearly on the first two words of the title. The script is one of Shakespeare's most fast-moving, anyway; but the directors have pruned it and relentlessly applied the horsewhip until it emerged as a fast, furious and frolicsome western. The lights go down; we hear a habanera; someone dashes down the aisle from the rear of the audience, leaps on stage and fires a rifle. From then on to the end we are swept up in the production's riotously breathless pace. Other characters race down the aisle, in and out of the wings, up and down stairs, and along the balcony. People pop in and out of doors, pistols fire, and all that's missing is "Hiyo, Silver!"

For good measure the directors have tossed in a couple of vigorous dances, and plenty of silly horseplay--such as the cigar-lighting routine, the fall from a chair to the floor, the pushing of a soap-filled shaving brush in someone's face, the pinching of female buttocks, and the person hidden under a table who moves it all over the stage in order to overhear a conversation better. And they have invented some new laughs. For example, when Benedick says of Beatrice, "I do spy some marks of love in her," the remark takes on a fresh significance through having Beatrice at that moment bending over with her rump sticking out into the audience. Whatever Shakespeare would think of all this, everyone is having a whale of a good time, and takes neither the play nor his own role seriously.

Alfred Drake is first-rate as the unsuccessful misogynist Benedick. He is as adept a comedian as he is an Iago. His diction and timing are exemplary, and he is a master of the nuanced inflection. Much of his Shakespearean prowess is, I think, the result of his being an excellent musician.

Katharine Hepburn is much better as the rapier-tongued Beatrice than as Portia. Her vocal short-comings are still in evidence, but not so prominently. Nothing here is so disastrous as her Portia's delivery of the "quality of mercy" speech; and, in fact, she has several very fine moments. And this time her conception is consistent. Of course the author helped a lot, for Beatrice is one of his best-drawn characters and Portia is not.

Dressed in black with shinily greased black hair and slinking step, Richard Waring does a superbly hammy job of the treacherous Don John. When he enters with an about-to-foreclose-the-mortgage leer at the outset and proclaims, "I am a plain-dealing villain," obviously subtlety is wholly out of place. As soon as Beatrice gives him a rose and departs, he makes a big thing of dropping it on the ground and kicking it into a hole.

John Colicos is a warm Leonato and Stanley Bell a prim Don Pedro. As Claudio, Richard Easton is better in comic moments than in serious ones; but he is developing nicely as an actor and shows good potential. Hero has little to do but look beautiful, which Lois Nettelton has no trouble in doing. Morris Carnovsky is a delightful Antonio as he hiphops about in a fussy, ineffectual manner.

Donald Harron's bow-legged Verges and all the men of the watch are properly mangy. But Larry Gates as the pompous and malapropistic Dogberry is disappointing to one who remembers Edward Finnegan's magnificent portrayal here at the Brattle Theatre. It is a far richer part than Gates makes of it.

Thanks are due the directors for retaining Balthazar's two songs. Russell Oberlin, who is with Alfred Deller one of the world's two finest countertenors (male altos), sings them to perfection.

This summer's third American Shakespeare Festival is by far the best to date. Any group can justifiably take much pride in a season that gives us such great performances as Earle Hyman's Othello, Morris Carnovsky's Shylock and Alfred Drake's Benedick.

Next year's three plays are evidently to be chosen from these five: Hamlet, King Lear, Merry Wives of Windsor, Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night. How about Hyman as Hamlet, Carnovsky as Lear, and Richard Waring as Malvolio?