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Lisa Carter, Anthony Cochrane,
and Cameron Blair
in Much Ado About Nothing
(Photo: Ken Howard)
The estimable Aquila Theatre Company, a touring ensemble of classically trained young actors from Britain and North America, has settled in at 45 Bleecker Street for 11 weeks of summer-weight Shakespeare. Aquila's Much Ado About Nothing, lightning-paced and sassy, sometimes gives short shrift to Shakespeare's text but renders the principal characters with an exuberance likely to charm even the most conservative Shakespeareans.

Founded a decade ago by producing artistic director Peter Meineck, Aquila mounts classic works using a minimum number of actors who make swift, often-astonishing transformations in multiple roles. The company also takes pared-down versions of great texts to schools and other institutions. One waggish reviewer recently referred to Aquila as "Theatre de Complicite with balls" and, indeed, this troupe's high-testosterone performances have the intensity of Complicite's The Chairs combined with the off-center appeal of that company's Mnemonic. Playgoers who saw Aquila's Cyrano de Bergerac last summer will recall the unrelenting energy of the production and the resourcefulness with which eight actors handled Rostand's rambling, 50-character script. In lieu of scenery, Aquila's Cyrano featured a beguilingly complicated lighting plot and simple, multi-purpose props--most memorably, old umbrella frames strung with Christmas lights that served first as chandeliers in a Paris theater, then as low-hanging bowers in Roxanne's garden. Aquila's version of Much Ado--a more distinguished play than Cyrano but, in some ways, less challenging to produce--is similarly refreshing, though without as much visual inventiveness or actorly sleight of hand.

Director Robert Richmond, who also directed Cyrano, has transported Much Ado to the fanciful realm of Cold War espionage movies. Richmond and Meinick, who collaborated on the production's design, admit that they were inspired by The Avengers and early James Bond films. Detectable also are whiffs of The Pink Panther and Get Smart. Anthony Cochrane's musical score is melodic and witty, a strikingly accurate counterfeit of 1960s pop that captures the nervous pace of the decade's spy thrillers.

Much Ado is notable for the arch, spiky dialogue of its Benedick-and-Beatrice subplot. The scenes between those sparring partners, which Shakespeare apparently created from whole cloth, are among the Bard's most glorious fabrications. Beatrice, whom Ellen Terry praised as a proto-feminist, claims she'd "rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me." Her bête noire, Benedick, vows he "would not marry her, though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed" and offers to "go on the slightest errand ... to the Antipodes" to avoid any contact with Beatrice. Yet the two are ready prey for mischievous friends who con them into confessing their attraction to each other.

Shakespeare borrowed the story of the virginal Hero (Shirleyann Kaladjian) and Count Claudio (Nathan Flower) from Bandello, Ariosto, and a Greek romance without adding much comedic innovation. In the Aquila staging, as in most productions of Much Ado, the Beatrice-Benedick subplot, with its scintillating exchanges of wit, overpowers the principal story of courtly love, jealousy, and misunderstanding. This is partly a function of Shakespeare's dramaturgy, which is sometimes elliptical in the Claudio-Hero story and even a little off-hand. With the "plain-dealing villain" Don John (Louis Butelli) and his sinister sidekicks Borachio (Richard Willis) and Conrade (combined with Borachio in the Aquila production), the main plot of Much Ado is a potboiler, ripe for relocation in the morally black-and-white universe of James Bond. Aquila's spy-movie conceit may not actually enhance the play, but it isn't forced or undue.

Richmond has cut Shakespeare's text, for the most part resourcefully, to 105 minutes (exclusive of the quarter-hour intermission) and eliminated five characters. Three women and five men handle the 12 remaining roles. The choppy scenes--many of them choppy because Shakespeare wrote them that way--are separated by blackouts and zippy choreographic interludes, giving this streamlined Much Ado a cinematic feel. The quick-cut rhythm of the production captures the atmosphere of 35-year-old spy movies but clouds the narrative a bit and undercuts the actors' efforts at characterization. Only as the evening reaches its intermission does the principal story gel in a way that's coherent and dramatically satisfying.

Aquila makes the most of what is, presumably, a very modest budget. The entire performance is played against one drop--a giant Union Jack--on a stage that's almost bare. As in Cyrano, Meinick's intricate lighting plot creates an illusion of scenic diversity. The eye-appealing costumes supplied by Beau Brummel, the Soho retailer, are a snazzy mix of camp, period finery, and the latest in casual-Friday haberdashery. The women sport shiny, black, faux-leather cat suits, boots, and bubble-styled wigs in unearthly colors. The men are clad in European-cut trousers and jackets, with dark-hued shirts and similarly dark neckties (à la Regis Philbin) and, now and then, a bowler hat. The smart, pricey look of the costumes goes a long way toward masking the frugality of the production as a whole.

Anthony Cochrane and Lisa Carter, so effective last year as Cyrano and Roxanne, are an inspired match as Benedick and Beatrice. Not for Carter the "merry war" that playgoers expect from the couple; she offers a surprising spin, rejecting the idea that her character is "born to speak mirth and no matter," mining from her disdainful criticism of Benedick the fury of a scorned lover. This Beatrice is a far cry from the gleefully tart-tongued spinster of stock-company Shakespeare. She is younger, more acidulous; not so much Diana Rigg in The Avengers as Diana Spencer (whose countenance and figure Carter evokes) during the 1990s, when the Prince and Princess of Wales were waging an all-out war for public sympathy. Carter may lack the raccoon-eyed look of Diana in her 1995 interview with the BBC, but she has the princess' steeliness, wiliness, and iron-willed determination. When Carter accuses Benedick of wearing "his faith but as the fashion of his hat," she means it. Her performance suggests that "the skirmish of wit" between the two is the bitter, agonizing fall-out of a complex back-story of wrongs or misunderstandings.

Cochrane makes Benedick brusque and arrogant, with flashes of compensating charm. This talented Scot--whose gait, gestures, and variegated vocal inflection make him seem, at times, a perpetual motion machine--is capable of filling any playing space with his formidable stage presence, but he's too skilled and careful an artist to upstage his colleagues. While he rides roughshod over many of the character's speeches, his momentary diminuendos suggest insecurity and interesting depths of anxiety. This Benedick is complex, multi-layered, and as offbeat as Carter's Beatrice.

In these two seasons, Cochrane and Carter have played the same couples--Cyrano and Roxanne, Benedick and Beatrice--that Derek Jacobi and Sinéad Cusack brought to New York 17 years ago in Terry Hands' memorable Royal Shakespeare Company productions. The younger pair don't suffer by comparison. Like Jacobi and Cusack in 1984, they're talents to watch. Their Aquila colleagues are similarly adept at Shakespearean verse and prose; but this Much Ado has been trimmed and directed in such a way that, of all the cast, only Louis Butelli really shares the spotlight with Carter and Cochrane.

Butelli plays Don John, the heavy who's unwilling "to fashion a carriage to rob love from any" and perfectly content "to be disdained of all." Walking a narrow line between melodrama and comedy, Butelli suggests how mesmerizing unadulterated evil might be. In the second half, he transforms himself from Don John into Dogberry, the clownish constable, then into a dotty clergyman and, finally, into Don John again. These nanosecond mutations are accomplished through clever, thoroughgoing modifications of posture, carriage, and accent, with hardly any change in wardrobe.

Aquila is the professional company in residence at the Center for Ancient Studies at New York University. Presumably, this means that the troupe--which has recently produced The Odyssey, The Iliad: Book One, and Oedipus the King--will be obliged to tackle more Greek and Latin works to fulfill its mission at NYU. Such will be welcome but, after seeing Much Ado, one can't help feeling this imaginative company has found its metier in summer-weight fare.

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