(Pics of production courtesy New York Classical Theatre Official Fan Facebook page)
We've seen a lot of productions of Much Ado About Nothing over the years, but for us, the gold standards have been two that we saw well over a quarter of a century ago: in the fall of 1984, when the Royal Shakespeare Company brought a production starring Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack to the Gershwin Theatre, and way back in 1973, the classic New York Shakespeare Festival production with Sam Waterston, Kathleen Widdoes, Douglass Watson (our idea of a matinee idol) and Barnard Hughes in a rollicking staging set in the Gay 90s (the 1890s, of course).
Tonight, in and around Castle Clinton and the surrounding gardens, vistas and monuments of Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, we saw the New York Classical Theatre's magical production of Much Ado, which at this moment seems to us as magical experience in Shakespeare as the other two.
Now in its eleventh season of outdoor performances, New York Classical Theatre stages "Shakespeare on the Run," and we got more physical exercise tonight than we did at any other production of the Bard's work, moving from location to location around the park - we lost count, but to maybe ten or twelve different places - as different scenes unfolded. Yet it seemed to work smoothly; the production company obviously has this down to a seamless science, as actors managing to stay in character as Dogberry, Borachio or Margaret directed us as to where to proceed next.
We don't have any photos of the play except the one we took of the program at the Battery Park/Castle Clinton sign on our way out, on top of this post, since cameras are forbidden. And that makes sense, given that a lot of the special charm of this movable feast of theater comes from the surprise not only of what happens next, but of where the audience goes next, and in the variety of gorgeous settings provided by the venerable Castle Clinton, the sumptuous view of New York Harbor with ferries to Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty pulling in and out, the stately pylons of the East Coast Memorial, or the modest dignity of the Walloon Settlers Monument.
The production clocked in at a swift two hours as superfluous parts of the play (and three characters, Leonato's elderly brother and a couple of his household's servants) are pared away. New York Classical Theatre's artistic director Stephen Burdman, experienced as he is in these stages, made the cuts wisely, and the play's logic of movement seems entirely natural. We have to give a hand to those in their recognizable company T-shirts who served as guides as to where to go, where to sit, and how fast to get there. As we were told at the start of the play on the steps in front of the round sandstone fort that is Clinton, "You can always have a front row seat if you walk fast."
We were a large group, and the movement fostered a camaraderie among the audience, and at times, as at the masqued ball, when we were supplied with masks and encouraged to find a dance partner, we joined the action as the nobles or townspeople of Messina. At the ball, we didn't dance, but found we were always the first ones at one spot or another within Castle Clinton's round enclave as we'd reviewed the play this morning and so were able to get close to Borachio and Margaret, or the disguised Beatrice or Benedick, or whichever couple we knew would be speaking next.
The production was set in the late 1940s, with Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio and the villainous Don John, as Naval officers and sailors returning from World War II with the bubbly feelings of giddy relief epitomized by that victory as seen in the iconic Times Square kiss between the sailor and nurse in Alfred Eisenstadt's photo.
Much of our pleasure in Much Ado, and probably most people's, is in the witty repartee of Beatrice and Benedick, somewhat older and more weathered than most of Shakespeare's lovers (they are rare in that they have a history, a backstory alluded to frequently but never quite delineated).
Here there's a wonderful mix that brought to our mind two movie roles from the period: the lithe, blithe sailor Benedick played by Thom Rivera, made us think of a wisecracking Frank Sinatra in On the Town (as in the apt "the Bronx is up and the Battery's down"), and the saucily caustic yet hidden vulnerability Beatrice of Kim Stauffer, in her sensible but sexy wide buttoned shirt and wide pants conjured up Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. It was a perfect match/mismatch/match and the linchpin of the production.
The more innocent pairing of the ingenues Hero and Claudio was well represented by Kristen Calgaro (adorable in her sweet late 40s period dress and the white socks and Mary Janes) and Ari Brand, who had the requisite callowness that can turn adolescent infatuation into an impulsive anger and desire to inflict humiliation on a girl he mistakenly think has wronged him.
That dark heart at the center of Much Ado About Nothing gives what would otherwise be a piece of fluff its true substance, as does the play's awareness, in Hero's plight, that life is fragile and fleeting. The New York Classical Theatre production brought out the comedy's joys and its sideways glance at evil and tragedy. In some ways, it's a Romeo and Juliet whose friar's plot goes off without a hitch, being closer to tragedy than any of Shakespeare's similar romantic comedies. (Nick Salamone gets a nice turn as the friar in the failed wedding scene.)
As Don Pedro, Christopher Cass has the resident dignity - like the memorable Douglass Watson, whom we saw so memorably in the role back in 1973, he's a daytime drama veteran - but this is a prince and commander who knows how to have fun and who finds pleasure in facilitating and yes, manipulating, fun for others. He's the dominant figure in Messina, although Leonato, here played by a nattily-attired, pitch-perfect John Michalski, gives him a run for his money, and their scenes together are wonderful.
Don John (Fred Rose, whom we've seen over the years on TV and stage) here is subtly oily enough to be rather charming, and Borachio (Cooper D'Ambrose) comes close to stealing a couple of scenes with his own raffish charm. He's nicely paired with Blair Baker as a friendly, bubbly Margaret; we don't know if the walking cast on one of her legs was part of the production or a medical necessity, but either way, it made Margaret that much more endearing. This couple is highlighted here as we haven't seen in other productions, and it's all to the good. His scenes with both Don Pedro and Conrade (Robbie Tann) are marked by cool bits of business.
Dogberry (Donald Grody), with his bumbling malapropisms, of course, is nearly always a delight, and here in his scenes with a less-stupid-than-he-seems Verges (Kevin Orton) and the other characters, the clueless constable elicits lots of laughs but also seems both ingratiating and oddly dignified. He and Verges, after all, right the order of things in messed-up Messina.
The settings, natural and man-made, were a gift (as was the fact that although a few drops fell and we could see ominous clouds and forked lightning over Staten Island at a scene by the water's edge, we avoided rain), and as always in outdoor productions, the outside world can sometimes serve fortuitously, as did the few moments of audience interaction as when a young boy, after a furtive Beatrice picks up a large handbag from an audience member in an attempt to hide herself, yelled out, "Give her back her purse!" -- well, the actors turned it into a priceless moment.
The whole production of Much Ado About Nothing was, for us, priceless, though we gave as generously as we could after the play ended in an exuberant swing-era dance spectacular in the manner of classic movie musicals as even the play's nominal villains joined in the fun. From the cast (almost all Equity) to the costumes to the music to the choreography to the later-evening lighting (sometimes supplied by the facilitators' flashlights, surprisingly effective), everything seemed to work perfectly.
So it may have been priceless but we gave what for us is a generous donation, since New York Classical Theatre relies on individual contributions for sixty percent of its revenue.
This production will again appear at Battery Park on 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, 30 31 and August 1, but if you can't make one of those two performances, it will move to Central Park (meet at West 103rd and CPW) for four more performances starting on August 21. It's a terrific evening in outdoor Shakespeare.