There’s a startling and inspired insight in Shira Milikowsky’s ’04 otherwise satisfyingly conservative Dramat production of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” And it comes from outer space.
Early on in the play, the cast of characters, their veracity and their physical control — as well as their judgments and powers of observation — all begin to wobble under some mischievous force. With everything slightly off-kilter, the characters become entangled in a peculiar dance of who loves whom, who doesn’t want whom to love whom and who has what to say about it. And the reason that this bunch of seemingly sensible characters loses its normal faculties is because there is an increased gravitational field affecting the action.
It is a radical interpretation of Shakespeare, and not one that Milikowsky was probably aware she was making. The fanciful notion that the giant moon sitting there above the garden walls — an imposing and beautiful projection on a baby blue cyclorama — is the culprit behind the uncommon courtship was so appealing that it drew me into its force field as well. Once I realized this was happening, Milikowsky’s creaky staging seemed more reasonable, and the more I enjoyed the overall fine production of the Bard’s love comedy.
What better way to explain the why Beatrice (Elizabeth Meriwether ’04) and Benedick (Peter Cellini ’04) look as if they are warming up for a track meet — or a circus — with their excessive crosses and unusual gyrations than to attribute them to an atypical astronomical force? It seems a perfectly plausible explanation of the fact that Beatrice and Benedick find themselves lurching around the garden — diving under benches, collapsing like pancakes on the ground, or dancing jerkily at the masquerade. And, since gravity will bend light, it also helps to justify why hardly anyone notices anyone else’s presence in the garden, even when eavesdroppers cower in plain sight behind skinny lamp posts and scraggy stone walls.
This is not a criticism but, rather, a theory that helps one enjoy things that otherwise might have felt unreasonably awkward, even while suspending all due disbelief. In fact, one of the play’s greatest assets is its kinetic energy. From the moment the lights come up, a blustery, elderly Leonato (Ian Lowe ’04) energizes the Yale Repertory Theater with his voice and vigor, and, with the help of an athletic and fun-loving ensemble, the talented cast keeps the play chugging throughout the first act.
Though a lot of Milikowsky’s blocking and sight gags are overextended and fell flat, the ones that hit the spot are expertly done. There is the aforementioned moment when Benedick, caught at center stage with nowhere to go, drops spread eagle to the ground to avoid detection from three scheming gentlemen a few feet away. Also of note is the slick symmetry with which Beatrice and Benedick leave garden benches standing on end in the middle of the stage and Don Pedro (Derek Miller ’04) and his buddies, with skeptical eyebrows quivering, return both benches to their proper position against the wall.
The problem is, as the moon disappears after the intermission, so too do its mysterious powers and the show’s sense of fun. Of course, the play has to take a solemn turn in order for the happy ending to pay off. But, as good as the cast is at pounding the verbal and physical humor, it seems that many of the actors would rather be playing a straight tragedy, and that brings the play to a near halt. Luscious lines become too much for the actors to resist delivering them with all the weight and motivation of Shakespearean tragedy. It is too bad the gravitron could not have stuck around for those moments, just to see what would have happened.
One actor who remains comfortable and loose throughout is Peter Cellini ’05. As the lanky on-again, off-again chauvinist bachelor Benedick, Cellini turns in his best performance in three years. When he leaps up on that infamous garden bench to croon a song of love and analyze his rhyming abilities, one can tell that Cellini is relishing the opportunity to burst out every which way. One can also tell that he loves his snazzy ensemble of sharp blue shirt, white tails and black pants.
Overall, the cast is quite strong, and includes solid performances from Meriwether as an amorphous and sarcastic Beatrice — who is, perhaps, the most affected by the moon — and Kristen Pring-Mill ’05, as her cunningly reticent cousin Hero.
Most refreshing, however, is Milikowsky’s insistence that a worthwhile Shakespeare production can be staged without anachronistic bells and whistles, without the support of bizarre contexts. Milikowsky, wisely, creates a simple and functional courtyard set that occasionally swings back like saloon doors to open up the acting space. She keeps most of her characters interesting yet restrained — and, best of all, adds that subtle interplanetary body that makes all the difference.
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