Hartford Stage. Directed by Mark Lamos. The Washington DC Shakespeare Theatre production.
The standout in a uniformly strong cast is Karin Ziémba as Beatrice, a musical comedy actress with enduring good looks, a fine sense of comic timing, and a related ability to dance and move in a fluid yet characteristic fashion. Dan Snook, the Benedick, played a broadly stated but convincing character, tall like the Beatrice, in contrast to the “straight” comic pair of Hero (Kathleen Early) and Claudio (Barrett Foa), a Michigan graduate with prominent eyes and mouth and a very clear, self-assured style despite his relative inexperience. Other especially good actors were Michael Santo as Leonato and Richard Ziman as Dogberry, doing a pretty good imitation of a Somerset accent and bringing more of a touch of common humanity to the role than one might have expected.
Lamos is just a splendid director. His recent endeavors at directing opera since his departure from Hartford Stage in 1997 after eighteen years as artistic director there seem to have enhanced his abilities at making broad, effective theatrical statements without in any way reducing his capacities, well-known to this audience, for rendering nuance and subtlety effectively and developing psychological depth without a hint of sacrifice of clear stage action and momentum. In fact, the forward movement of this play is truly remarkable. Its action and dialogue are supremely clear — accents generalized British and quite appropriate, even considering the choice to set the period of the play in the 1920s. It’s a British 1920s, though it could be Philadelphia mainline were it not for the accents. Truly sumptuous costumes by Catherine Zuber, including stunning masquerade masks in the night party scene, graced this effort. Lamos has a broad, open stage to work with: a high balustraded crossover in clear view at the top of the stage, from which, at either end, a wide balustraded staircase down into the main acting area made for some fine entrances. The stage floor was carpeted in green, preserving an expansive outdoors atmosphere even in the interior scenes, accomplished by means of properties such as a chaise longue and washbasins and hand mirrors, carried on and off with impeccable timing by a staff of movers costumed in footman or butler or maid’s costumes. (To keep the momentum high, Lamos directed these changes to be begun even as the characters were finishing the current scene.)
A good example of what Lamos can do is the character of the Friar, played here by Edwin Owens. When Claudio wrecks the wedding ceremony by accusing Hero of infidelity, the tone changes drastically. The Friar’s intervention can be played any number of ways, many of them perhaps predictably perfunctory. Owens’s Friar slows everything down, deliberately, speaking his lines of thoughtful encouragement very distinctly, at a slow pace, as if he is thinking as he speaks, but with such an air of solicitation and concern for Hero, and for her father Leonato as well, that we feel the situation is in good hands. And when he calls for measures as extreme in their own way as the situation itself, we are perhaps momentarily reminded of a much more problematic friar, Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet, who knows all about “tempering extremities with extremes sweet” but who, unlike his predecessor, does not lead the protagonists into irretrievable ruin but, instead, prepares the groundwork for a satisfying reconciliation.
Much wonderful dancing at the end brings a stylish close to one of the best mountings of Shakespearean comedy I have seen in many a year.