Sometimes less is more. This is especially true with Shakespeare. While some productions go for a maximalist approach, employing cinematic effects and lavish set pieces, the best productions tend to be a little lighter on their feet. That is certainly the case with the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing, which is settling down at the Public Theater for a few weeks after a month on the road. This nimble, eight-person cast succeeds in drawing out the humor and humanity of Shakespeare’s classic comedy in fresh, exciting, and infinitely accessible ways.
A revival of an old Joseph Papp idea (the New York Shakespeare Festival founder once toured his shows to every borough in a truck he dubbed the “mobile theater”), The Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit takes its productions to prisons, homeless shelters, and senior centers around the New York metropolitan area, bringing Shakespeare to audiences who might not be able to wait in line for tickets at the Delacorte. While the production has now landed at the Public’s Luesther Theater, it is still performing to underserved audiences, as evidenced by the presence of guests from the Fortune Society (a not-for-profit that serves the formerly incarcerated) and the Bowery Mission (a local homeless shelter) at the performance I attended.
Arguably Shakespeare’s wittiest comedy, Much Ado About Nothing is the story of burgeoning love in Messina (which in this production looks strikingly like Melrose Place). Spanish prince Don Pedro (Marc Damon Johnson) has returned successfully from battle with his lieutenants Benedick (Michael Braun) and Claudio (A.Z. Kelsey). Claudio easily falls for Hero (Kerry Warren), daughter of Governor Leonato (Ramsey Faragallah). Benedick, on the other hand, doesn’t fall for Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Samantha Soule), nor would she ever want him to: She severely dislikes Benedick. For Benedick’s part, the feelings are mutual. But could these two strong-willed and sharp-tongued individuals prove the perfect match? In Shakespeare, anything is possible.
Detesting the putrid scent of love in the air, Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Lucas Caleb Rooney) schemes to ruin the impending wedding of Claudio and Hero by spreading rumor of her infidelity and having his minion Borachia (Rosal Colón) sneak into her bedchamber. This leads to a series of unfortunate misunderstandings that threaten to derail everything. SPOILER ALERT: Love wins out in the end.
Sporting a nefarious Tom Selleck mustache, Rooney is the kind of villain you love to hate. Hisses follow him as he swaggers on stage as Don John. His double role as Constable Dogberry proves to be the real scene-stealer: He’s a bumbling, whistle-happy prison guard, the kind who likes to get up in your face a la “Scared Straight”. He keeps the audience (and some of his fellow actors) rolling with laughter.
The true key to a successful Much Ado is a Beatrice and Benedick who are equally matched, as Braun and Soule are. Both incredibly physical actors (my jaw hit the floor as Soule crawled around underneath the audience chairs in the front row), they also have a talent for delivering with maximum sting the verbal barbs for which this play is so famous.
Their comic timing is complemented by Director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s fast-paced staging (100 minutes, no intermission) in the round. Timothy R. Mackabee’s minimal set (a patch of mowed grass and an all-purpose bench) helps to keep the scenes rolling on and off: Shakespeare wrote a lot of short scenes with constantly changing locations, so it doesn’t make much sense to have a cumbersome set. In absence of that, Shakespeare’s irresistibly funny language takes center stage, as delivered by a tight ensemble of players. You’d have to make a real effort not to laugh.
Case and point: At my performance two cool guys in the back row were sporting sunglasses and oversized headphones. Both looked rather determined to stay that way. When I checked back halfway, though, these gentlemen were leaning forward, shades off, laughing uncontrollably. At the Public Theater, Shakespeare is still very much for everybody.