Matinee. Hampshire Shakespeare Company. Directed by Sheila Siragusa. After-season benefit for the University of Massachusetts Renaissance Center. On the lawn behind the Center.
I missed seeing this production during its regular run this past summer; so it was a treat to be able to see it — with some minor changes in cast, ten in all, according to Sheila Siragusa, a former UMass Theatre Department student who studied with me on her way to her MFA in directing.
She really brought the play to life. The updated setting is Messina after the victory of the Allies ending World War II. The music is that wonderful combination of the romantic and the zany that characterizes Glen Miller and the Andrews Sisters and others, that now exists in one of the most perspicuous time warps of any in American history (sixty years ago). I knew all those songs, being nine going on ten in those days when the war came to an end, and finding I could play them all by ear on my new clarinet, just like Benny Goodman (I thought).
Siragusa captures a nice nostalgic feeling that lends a definite charm to this production. These are amateur actors, and the level of expertness varied; and yet the pace and focus of the action remained remarkably constant. Any production of Much Ado must stand or fall on the capacities of the actor and actress playing Benedick and Beatrice. In this case, Kathryn Lynch and Steve Angel were fully up to the challenge. (I had almost used the names of the young cast of the play, part of the Hampshire Shakespeare approach to initiate young actors into performing Shakespeare.) Lynch is a beautiful, statuesque blonde with full lips and wonderful carriage, who was clothed, winningly, in hip-hugging slacks (very adventurous, in 1945) and pastel-colored tulip skirts that simultaneously stayed with her and flounced provocatively as she walked. All that would have been for nothing, however, without that lovely combination of hauteur and underlying vulnerability that makes Beatrice what she is. Lynch captured that paradoxical quality very nicely, and even invested it with a certain pathos. At least, I sensed that in her admission to Don Pedro, who says he believes she was “born in a merry hour”:
Beatrice: No, sure, my Lord, my mother cried: but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born.
The pains of childbirth are part of Beatrice’s sense of herself, along with a dancing star; and we can speculate that fears of the trauma of childbirth lie in some measure behind the extraordinary self-protective barrier of ostensible man-hating that seems to characterize Beatrice’s encounters with any man who might find himself falling in love with her.
Chris Junno was an appropriate foil for all this, capturing the single-mindedness and charming, naïve egotism that give the Benedick his comic manliness and, finally, courage in the service of humankind. “The world must be peopled!” is his characterizing cry.
As Siragusa explains in the director’s note in the program, there are problems in the play that strike us as unresolved — and, fortunately, she has the good sense not to try to solve them, through casting or “concept.” The main problem is the wholesale tendency of a fiancé, husband, father, and others to believe at once the slander perpetrated by the nefarious villain Don John that impugns the reputation of the heiress, Hero, and causes her to faint at the wedding ceremony when Claudio in steely rage cruelly hands her back to her father. Why are they all — all males — with the noteworthy exception of Benedick, so ready to believe this groundless malign gossip? The play does not answer this question, though it does give us a sincerely repentant Claudio, finally. And so there is a quantum of violence held in suspension in the cultural matrix of the play.
The less pressing question is that of Don John’s seemingly motiveless villainy. But it is no different, really, from that of Richard III — Gloucester, he is, to begin with — who starts out by assuring the audience: “I am determined to prove a villain.” So is Don John. But this is a comic villain, notably inept, both in himself and in the company he keeps. It is only fitting, in this comic world, that his ineptness is matched by the world-class ineptness of Dogberry and the watch, who — because it is comedy — triumph over their own ineptitude, overhear Don John’s co-conspirators in their plotting, and reveal the scam, finally, to the real powers that be. We might as well inquire into the cultural and psychic depths of Dogberry.
In this respect the play achieves a certain transparency and simply carries us along, even as we ponder its more opaque issues. Another approach might have emphasized how important it is, in straightforward social terms, for Hero to marry properly and well. When her father affiances her to Claudio, he says, in effect, “I give you my daughter [his only child; he has no male heir] and my fortune.” This is a marriage that shores up and reinvigorates the social bonds in the human continuity on which civilization depends. Yet, meanwhile, the human dilemma is that the two most appealing and personally eligible persons who might be a match, Beatrice and Benedick, are at odds. As in many a Restoration comedy — Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode is perhaps the single best example — the “private” part of the action has to be resolved before the more “public” part can be brought to terms. That is what happens in Much Ado. And the point at which the play turns toward this double resolution is the point where Beatrice, feeling the wound of Hero’s slandering deeply, answers Benedick’s offer to do anything at all to prove his love for her by exhorting him to “Kill Claudio.” Benedick instinctively refuses. And in fact, any attempt of his to kill Claudio would turn the play away from its comic ethos toward the treacherous waters of tragicomedy.
To his credit, Benedick keeps his head (does this surprise us?) when all about him are losing theirs. Instead, he challenges Claudio to a duel; but before the time, the place, and the weapons can be determined, the absurdity of the challenge to Hero’s chastity is revealed. Somehow, the prospect of a duel between Benedick and Claudio comes off as less mortal in its threat than what Beatrice enjoins Benedick to do, possibly because the duel, however deadly in prospect, is grounded in culturally approved standards of honor. At any rate, Benedick’s refusal, even at the cost of losing Beatrice, asserts a certain cultural value on whose solid base the play is constructed. No marriage is viable or valid without firmly establishing the full integrity of the persons involved. For Benedick, this is primary — even more so than the urge to self-fulfillment, erotic in its character, that drives him to throw in his lot with Beatrice.
As comedic luck would have it, these troubles have the effect of stalling things long enough for the Keystone cops of Messina to bumble their way to judicial closure. I would have liked to see a second dance at the end, a nice repetition with variations of the truly charming dance at the engagement party, well into the first half of the production. Somehow the ending of the play, as produced here, was a bit lacking in sparkle and drive. But, overall, I was very much charmed by and impressed with what a capable director could do with a bunch of local amateur actors who start out stiff and ungainly but by show time become an amazing meld of disciplined vigor and sustained vitality. Even more wonderful, they did this, Sheila Siragusa told me, with one four-hour brush-up rehearsal.