THEATRES gather ghosts. In the best theatres, they collect at an alarming rate--not merely wisps of nostalgia, but the disembodied presences of those individuals, living and dead, who have there experienced moments of special intensity, whether feigned or actual. And such spirits are fully capable of interference with the ongoing business of putting on plays. Some months ago, I stood on the stage of Washington's scrubbed and refurbished Ford's theatre, and indulged myself in a rather banal reflection on the impossibility of playing comedy in the house where a hack Shakespearean once broke a leg.
Incidentally, I learn that little groups of brave souls, collected for a National College Theatre Festival, or some such, will be trying just that, and I break hoary stage custom to wish them just "good luck."
Quite unlike Ford's, the Loeb Drama Center has always seemed impervious to supernatural meddling. True, one hears stories of the bricklayer who succumbed to aggravated ennui while completing its masonry and was mistakenly immured there in. But there are good reasons to discount the testimony of those who claim to have heard his terrifying, ceaseless yawns. Things have changed, however, and the Much Ado About Nothing which the Harvard Dramatic Club is offering us these evenings gives every indication of a troublesome haunting. This amateur spiritualist, for one, suspects that the production may be infected by restless remnants of last week's faculty meeting, for it is as short on clarity as it is long on good will, and frequently evinces the spirit of vain disputatiousness which we have come to expect of proceedings governed by Robert's Rules of Order.
What credit for the state of this Much Ado that does not lie with the spirits must be lodged squarely with director Kenny McBain and his design staff. The actors are uniformly competent, and a few considerably more, but it would serve little purpose to discuss their work in more detail here. The effort is marred not by any deficiencies in performance, but by an ineluctable thinness of dramatic conception which the best performances could do little to amend or disguise.
Shakespearean comedy, even a play as nice as this pageant of misrepresentation and manipulation, needs to survive on a modern stage. Mr. McBain has apparently understood this requirement, but his intermittant attempts to provide are the sorts of cures that kill. Where the play cries out for a locale--a definite fix in time and space--he has staged it with settings as homey and identifiable as the mountains of the moon, and costumes suggestive of a Bulgarian re-make of Flash Gordon. The addition of a sort of light show-cyclorama, beautiful as it may be in the abstract works largely to complement the confusion.
Where the play demands direction which will point and illustrate the exceptional verbal wit of the text, Mr. McBain has chosen to give his players few props and less stage business: seldom have I seen so many actors standing meditatively with arms folded. When they are given business, it is as likely as not to distract substantially from the words of other characters then speaking. On occasion, the stage groupings extended across so broad a space that I was forced to choose between watching the speaker and following another character's elaborate pantomime of reaction. Where the pay requires both speed and variation of pace to succeed, the direction has chosen a laggardly tempo with ripe interludes of music or silence dividing scenes from their successors. Finally, where the text asks faith from its producers, Mr. McBain's cutting does some minor but significant violence to the words. Not only is Balthasar's lyric on inconstancy omitted, along with any attempt at a staging of the dances specified by the author, but at least once (III.v.60), a line of Dogberry's is altered to Cadge a cheap laugh.
Mr. McBain's staging reminds one forcefully of all the reasons underlying resort to modern dress production of Shakespeare's comedies. Although such conceptions may threaten the very identity of a play, at their best they serve a text in rendering its characters and incidents concrete. I would have paid cash money last night to see Dogberry, Verges and company tricked out in Constabulary Blue rather than motley. But for one evening at least, the ghosts have it.