KPBS AIRDATE: November 11, 1992
The society is filled with civilized shallowness. The wealthy are consumed with appearance, obsessive about their expensive diversions. They have a superficial grasp of love; only the trivialities are serious to them. They celebrate a war, and make light of the casualties. One might call them “morally moronic.”
That’s a pretty apt description of some of our countrymen. But it was written about the thirteenth century characters in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.” So, if the commonalities are there, why not an update?
Des McAnuff, artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse, is known for his creative modernizations of classics. He’s also known for his excesses. And in the current production of “Much Ado,” both proclivities are prominent.
The main plot of the play focuses on two love affairs — the fairly earnest one between Hero and Claudio. And the contrived and reluctant one between Beatrice and Benedick. The two Bs represent one of the wittiest romantic sparrings in dramatic literature. They’re two extremely clever, intelligent, spoiled rich-kids. They make for perfect modern-day Yuppettes. They deserve each other, and that’s why everyone else conspires to trick them into marriage. So far so good.
The Hero-Claudio relationship is too silly for words. Claudio moves, in a split second, from hopeless devotion to hapless, blind-rage jealously (foreshadowing Othello, who showed up onstage a few years later). Hero is disgraced, she swoons, she faints; she is mistaken for dead, then she feigns death (This part harks back to “Romeo and Juliet”). It’s all too ridiculous. Almost nothing could help it. It is what it is: One of those weak links in so many of Shakespeare’s comedies: totally unbelievable plot complications and resolutions.
Okay, that dispensed with as almost irredeemable no matter what you do, let’s look at the rest of the play. There are the good-guy noble- and military-men, and the bastard brother and his bad-guy cronies. There’s a bumbling Constable and his oafish constabularies.
McAnuff really had a field day with this crew: it’s the Army and Navy versus the Marines, with the added attraction of the bumblers being the L.A. police. Those bad-boy Marines with the on-and-off Southern accents were pretty funny. The L.A. police-look worked fine.
But the So-Cal spoof didn’t stop there. Oh, no, we had the big party with everyone wearing high-profile masks — there was Nixon and Quayle, Bush, Woody Allen and Michael Jackson.
And, just in case we possibly missed any of the darker underside of Shakepeare’s or McAnuff’s intent, we had a sort of running commentary on video: real scenes from the L.A. riots, playing on monitors all over the sumptuous house. And even that wasn’t enough. Although the play has a kind of “all’s well that ends well” conclusion, that wasn’t the right tone for McAnuff; he had to leave us with the final, fading video image of the riot aftermath. All, he’s telling us, is not really well. There’s always a cleanup after a mess. Creative and inventive though McAnuff is, he needs to be reined in sometimes. His heavy contemporary political commentary didn’t work and neither did the second-act silly slapstick.
But the first act was a charmer. And the look of the production was incomparable. Robert Brill’s set is is a masterpiece of subtly humorous opulence. Multi-leveled, and done down to the very last detail, including huge palm trees, a convertible putting green, and an armed-response security system sign on the front lawn. Magnificent! And beautifully lit by Chris Parry, with lovely costumes by David C. Woolard and excellent sound by Michael Roth.
The performances are generally high caliber, with Hero and Claudio somewhat weaker than Beatrice and Benedick. In the latter role, Mark Harelick shines; he’s just arrogant, crafty and funny enough to carry the whole evening. As for the rest of the proceedings, someone should cry to the director: Hold back! McEnuff!
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.