New York — Much Ado About Nothing Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gerald Freedman. ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' in Central Park, revels in the much ado of director Gerald Freedman's sight gags and farcical flourishes.
The broad treatment suits the alfresco environs of the Delacorte Theater and an amplification system that magnifies the merest whisper. Mr. Freedman and an engaging company have collaborated in a spirited revival of one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies.
Moved forward to 1800
Although time of action is advanced to 1800, the production opens characteristically. Welcomed by a congregation of extras, veterans of the recent successful battle action come trooping onstage. Entrances accomplished, Benedick (Kevin Kline) and friend Claudio (Don Reilly) immediately clash in a bout of high-spirited swordplay, relished by the general and disdainfully viewed by an aloof Beatrice (Blythe Danner). Mr. Freedman makes the to-do the natural occasion for the resumption of the ``merry war'' between Beatrice and Benedick. Of that, more later.
The interwoven plots of ``Much Ado'' actually involve two nothings. One concerns the ``honest slanders'' by which their friends deceive Beatrice and Benedick into believing that each is loved by the other.
The second nothing is darker and more sinister, the charade by which the malevolently manic Don John (David Pierce) gulls Claudio into thinking that his betrothed Hero (Phoebe Cates) has been unfaithful on the eve of their wedding.
The parallel plot and subplot unfold briskly under Mr. Freedman's direction. Miss Danner and Mr. Kline register with suitably comic dismay the realization of how they have been duped.
The momentarily devastating effects of Don John's scheming furnish the counterbalancing downside of a generally sunlit comedy. With the simple diligence of Jerry Stiller's drolly dogged Dogberry and his watch and the sage counsel of Richard Woods's serene Friar Francis, all's well that ends well.
Shrewdly matched leads
Miss Danner and Mr. Kline are a shrewdly matched Beatrice and Benedick - Miss Danner personifying what one writer has called ``the sauciest, most piquant, madcap girl that ever Shakespeare drew'' and the superb Mr. Kline epitomizing overconfident, antiromantic bachelorhood bound for sweet defeat and married life. They are well seconded by Mr. Reilly's too credulous Claudio and Miss Cates's reviled but forgiving Hero.
A strong cast includes Brian Murray (Don Pedro), Robert Gerringer, and George Hall (the elderly brothers Leonato and Antonio), and Dan Butler and Dylan Baker (the villainous hirelings).
The pictorial result of the 1800 setting is a wardrobe of ornate uniforms of the soldiery and high-bodiced empire gowns and poke bonnets for the ladies - all decoratively provided by costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge.
Scenic artist John Ezell and lighting designer Thomas R. Skelton make Messina a touristy place to visit of a summer evening; the arbors and flower beds surrounding the central revolving stage are indispensable for eavesdropping. John Morris's Italianate score supplies just the right light incidental music.
While the production sacrifices certain airs and graces, it remains true to the spirit of the comedy and honors the Bard in its own extravagant way.
This is No. 4 in the New York Shakespeare Festival's Shakespeare Marathon. It was preceded by ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' ``Julius Caesar,'' and ``Romeo and Juliet,'' and will be followed next month at the Delacorte by the rarely produced ``King John.''
John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.