Theater Review - The Italian job

Much Ado overdoes it

I’ve seen several “concept” versions of Much Ado About Nothing, productions that have relocated the Shakespeare comedy to Spain, to Africa’s Mediterranean coast and to an indeterminate place during the 1920s Jazz Age. Theatre in the Square’s rendition proves arduous and mannered by having the play set in Sicily — no mean feat, since Shakespeare set the play in Sicily himself.

Director Jessica Phelps West makes entirely too much ado over the play’s Italian setting. Despite a talented cast with some highly experienced Shakespearean players, Theatre in the Square’s Much Ado collapses under the weight of its heavy-handed accents and accessories. The show doesn’t just pepper in the occasional “grazie,” but translates entire songs, poems and pieces of dialogue into Italian. The cultural frills and contrived jokes entrap the romantic comedy as effectively as concrete galoshes.

Much Ado doesn’t even begin with Shakespeare’s text, but a newly written, tortured recap of the story delivered by Scott DePoy as a mustachioed musician with a concertina and a “Mamma mia!” accent. Throughout the play, DePoy’s compositions and musicianship with mandolin and violin provide an appropriate (if incessant) soundtrack of Italian-style melodies. But his stereotypical clowning only prompts groans — when DePoy levels a stream of Italian curses at one of the play’s villains, he includes words like “antipasto!” and “Louie Prima!” No one could squeeze laughs out of that.

Meanwhile, the plot’s double romances never catch fire. While Shakespeare paints Claudio (Cary Donaldson) and Hero (Natalie Gray) as naive young lovers, here they merely come across as bland and insipid.

You probably know a couple like bickering Benedick (John Ammerman) and Beatrice (Rosemary Newcott). They’re the kind of acquaintances who incessantly argue with each other until a mutual friend tells them, “Why don’t you two just sleep together and get it over with?” When Don Pedro (Brik Berkes) decides to play matchmaker by convincing Benedick that Beatrice secretly loves him — and vice versa — it leads to some of Shakespeare’s most hilarious and least dated comic situations.

It’s nearly impossible to screw up the scenes in which Benedick and Beatrice (separately) eavesdrop on their friends, who knowingly tell white lies to bring the pair together. Yet this production screws them up. Neither character has a mental handicap, yet they stoop to outrageously phony slapstick to spy on their pals and trample all over the comedic possibilities in the text.

Ammerman and Newcott give strained performances as well, imbuing their characters with a preening vanity that makes neither likable. Ammerman hammers so many quirky vocal inflections in his speeches that Benedick practically minces. Newcott makes Beatrice unattractively pushy as she one-ups everyone she encounters. Late in the play, the pair share a nice moment reclining in each other’s arms, and briefly find the ease missing from the rest of the show.

In Much Ado’s strangest creative decision, African-American Gary Yates plays Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John, who schemes to sabotage Claudio’s marriage to Hero. Yates isn’t the only actor of color in Much Ado, but here his race “explains” why Don John behaves like such a resentful outsider. Like Othello playing the role of Iago, Yates seethes with scarcely contained anger — perhaps his Don John perceives racial preferment behind Don Pedro’s fondness for Claudio. The casting choice raises more questions than the text can answer, but at least it’s an intriguing idea.

Bart Hansard and Christopher Ekholm, who play Constable Dogberry and his sidekick like a couple of klutzy goombahs from “The Sopranos,” come up with some amusing shtick. And Rochelle Barker’s courtyard set, with babbling fountain and vivid orange trees, looks so gorgeous you can imagine spending a second honeymoon there. But nearly every other turn in Theatre in the Square’s Much Ado About Nothing suggests that the creative team’s better judgment took a Roman holiday.