The Public Theater presentation of Much Ado About Nothing, with a starry cast performing in the bucolic setting of Central Park's Delacorte Theater, is likely to be among New York City's most sought after tickets. Up at the 133rd Street Arts Center, What Dreams May Co. Theatre and Queens Players are currently offering another Much Ado, hardly publicized but well worth a visit. In a perfectly ordered New York City, the masses of would-be theatergoers who fail to score seats for Much Ado in the Park (and those unwilling to sacrifice a day to waiting in line for free tickets) would find their way to Harlem to see the handiwork of 14 unknown actors, directed by Nicole Schalmo, in a tiny, second-floor auditorium with a minimum of scenery and equipment.
Much Ado About Nothing is a rowdy mixture of the silly and the serious. The central plot comes from classical Greek literature via 16th-century Italian sources — Ludovico Ariosto and Matteo Bandello — and Edmund Spenser's English epic The Faerie Queene. The story concerns Claudio (Gregg Ellson), just home from war, who spurns his bride, Hero (Christina Sheehan), at the altar. Hero is virtuous, but circumstantial evidence, contrived by the toxic Don John (Jonathan Emerson), suggests otherwise; and Claudio has been taken in by Don John's scheme. Hearing Claudio's harsh accusations, Hero faints away; her father, Leonato (Rafael Svarin), claiming she's dead, concocts a plan to clear her name and punish Claudio's arrogance. Things are dire until a band of bumbling rustics — constable Dogberry (Kenny Fedorko), his sidekick Verges (Nathan Beagle), and two officers of the municipal watch (Kate Fallon and Meghan Blakeman) — unwittingly thwart Don John's conspiracy.
There isn't much that's plausible about the misunderstanding between Claudio and Hero or what follows it; and, based on that implausibility, W.H. Auden has declared that Much Ado is "not one of Shakespeare's best plays." Yet throughout the past four centuries, this relatively dark comedy has been a crowd-pleaser. Its popularity is due, in large measure, to the subplot in which Hero's cousin Beatrice (Aimee Marcelle) and Benedick (Gonzalo Trigueros), a military comrade of Claudio, are tricked into falling in love with each other. The opinionated, sharp-tongued Benedick and Beatrice are among Shakespeare's most vivid creations; and Auden aptly describes them as “the characters of Shakespeare we’d most like to sit next to at dinner.”
The youthful cast handles both verse and prose with confidence and brio. Fedorko, adept at low Shakespearean comedy, makes Dogberry a highlight of the proceedings. Emerson, a forceful, nuanced Macduff in the What Dreams May Co. Macbeth last December, does what he can to lend verisimilitude to a one-dimensional role; his Don John is an exuberantly villainous cartoon, enormous fun to watch but inexplicably malevolent.
As in most productions of Much Ado, the evening belongs to Beatrice and Benedick. Shakespeare uses the reluctant lovers as tools to skewer the conventions of courtly love; Marcelle and Trigueros (presumably guided by Schalmo) ensure that Beatrice and Benedick are always emotionally complex and convincing. Marcelle is a striking comedic presence, compellingly vivacious without upstaging her compatriots. She's well-matched in raillery and romantic chemistry by Trigueros's Benedick. The pair navigate a credible, touching transformation from prickliness to devotion.
In addition to being the production's director, Schalmo is responsible for costumes and, with Emerson, for the lighting design. She has transferred the action of the play from Renaissance Messina to a small town in the American Midwest. This conceit, applied with a light touch, works very well for a story of deception, backbiting and intrigue; and it frees the actors of anxiety about speaking Shakespeare's lines in their natural accents.
Schalmo and her self-assured cast keep the action moving at a swift, consistent pace and make the most of the modest dimensions of the 133rd Street Arts Center stage. With no design fripperies to distract the audience, the production is focused throughout on the humor and beauty of the Bard's text. The simplicity of this Much Ado turns out to be a formidable asset.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, presented by What Dreams May Co. Theatre, in association with Queens Players at the 133rd Street Arts Center (308 West 133rd St. between St. Nicholas Ave. and Frederick Douglass Blvd. in Harlem), runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. through June 21. Tickets: $18. For tickets, visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/495842 or call 1-800-838-3006.