In Spite of Itself: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Presented by The Boston Theater Company
By William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Joey Frangieh

October 17 – November 2, 2014
Boston Center for the Arts
Calderwood Pavilion
527 Tremont street, Boston
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Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston, MA) Let’s get this part out there first: Much Ado About Nothing is a delightful show with tremendous performers who put their heart and soul into this production. The standout performance for me was Jeff Church’s Benedick. Church’s quirkiness and boundless energy couldn’t help but remind me of David Tenant as The Doctor. Give him a bowtie and a TARDIS, and he’ll be happy to take you on all of your time travel adventures (and you’d gladly go because of his brains, charm, and devilish good looks). It’s entertaining and fresh, and you should all go see it as it stretches into its final weekend at the BCA.

That said, I have a bone to pick with Director/Adapter Joey Frangieh. As a director, he led his actors to the great success that is the show now. As an adapter, he utterly failed them.

The show is a two-hour cut of Much Ado pared down to eight characters and re-set in the modern day to highlight how digital communications confuse the messages we humans send to each other. The new “twist” was not the problem; the concession of Hero’s slander becoming a photo-shopped picture actually, for the most part, worked. Text messages in lieu of messengers is a modern idea that any child of the digital age could relate to (and, with some support from sound design, would have been much stronger…. I can’t tell you how many times a phone “went off” without making any kind of noise and yet the character suddenly and forcefully knew to look at their phone at the exact right moment as though a text had come through). The problem was that there were too many problems.

A few plot holes left by Frangieh’s adaptation include: If Leonata and the Prince are together, then why does Don Pedro offer himself to Beatrice as a husband? Why does Leonata want Claudio and Hero to wait until Monday to get married? Why does Leonata fly off the handle at Hero for having an “affair” when she herself has been canoodling with Don Pedro in an unmarried fling? Why does Dogberry make a point to Leonata that her captor called her “Ass” when he never did such a thing?

These are some of the smaller issues with Frangieh’s adaptation. Here are some of the larger ones:

In order to “elucidate” the character’s inner monologue, Frangieh inserted portions of the text of sonnets 114, 29, 119, 70, and 71. This concession simply didn’t work. Beatrice writing emo poetry didn’t hold with her character, Don John’s motives were not in the least clarified, and the tuneless music put to the sonnets only sounded like a cacophony of noise rather than any kind of gilded splendor. Shakespeare wrote before the world became obsessed with the idea of an inner monologue (that is, before Freudian psychology changed the way we look at the human mind). As such, the characters in Shakespeare’s plays are transparent; they will always tell you what they think. Trust in the text would have gone far in this regard.

One major issue with Much Ado about Nothing, no matter who performs it, is Dogberry. Written as a comic relief character, the thick language and often obscure jokes which he spouts that (apparently) read well to an early modern audience tend to fall flat on hyper modern ears. Dogberry needs as much support as possible from the text and director to make the part work, and this production undercut all efforts of actress Liana Asim to sell the role (and she was working her butt off to do it; in a good way). Frangieh made the decision that Dogberry’s watch would be made using digital surveillance and so Dogberry’s scenes with the watch were delivered to tablets and empty screens who then “talked back” using Asim’s own voice as the interpreter. This muddled the comedy even further than it was already muddled and made Dogberry’s scene ramble interminably. These scenes require physical commitment to slapstick comedy or they just won’t land and, unfortunately for Asim, Frangieh took away any opportunity she had to work with material that might be rendered comprehensible to the modern ear.

Much Ado about Nothing is a play about gender and status issues. As such, any modernization attempt needs to take these issues into account. Frangieh completely overwrote them. There was no sense of what lent certain characters status (and, indeed, no hint that they even had it), nor was there any notion that gender (in Frangieh’s hyper-modern world) would stand in the characters’ way from doing the things they need/want to do. Since these issues are embedded in the text, ignoring them (or manipulating the text to undercut them) makes them confusing. Why, for instance, is Beatrice empowered to hatch the Hero plan but then immediately bemoans not being able to do anything to help her cousin? Without some hint of the conflict that the soldiers come back from in the beginning, why does Don John decide to enact a revenge plot against his brother? And why does his brother make the mistake to forgive him a second time at the end of the show? Frangieh gives us no answers….

I take this production to be a warning to all would-be adapters everywhere: if you are going to adapt, hire a dramaturge. Your ideas, however brilliant they may seem, will always have holes in them. You need a second pair of eyes and ears to make you aware of what these holes might be. Having someone whom you trust to point them out to you will make your product better, will help your actors perform to greater effect, and will allow you to make big bold choices that support the text rather than burden it.

Despite my questions, I urge you to go see this show. Maybe you can come up with answers that I didn’t, but even if you can’t you’ll have an entertaining evening at the theatre.

 

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