Cracking the wise

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  May 20, 2009

All is forgiven when, after intermission, the disheveled jurist, robe askew and hair on end, makes his next morning’s appearance, having apparently traded in a prescription that made him drowsy for one that combines amphetamine with truth serum. He looks like Frankenstein’s monster caught in the headlights after a very bad bender. And as the wide-eyed, limber-limbed, power-mongering confessor continues to pop pills, crawl across his desk like a snail, strip to his skivvies, and make increasingly random if well-crafted utterances redolent of Joe Orton, he just gets funnier. Romance won’t win Mamet any awards other than one for picking an even more baffling title than he did for Oleanna. But it may give its audience, suspended between outraged affront and guilty laughter, a new respect for contempt of court.

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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: Paula Plum and Richard Snee are the life of the swank-on-a-shoestring ASP affair.

It’s Hero’s party, and she’ll cry if she wants to in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Much Ado About Nothing (at Roxbury Center for Arts at Hibernian Hall through June 14). The scene is vaguely 1950s America, and soldiers are returning home from a war. When they show up, some in dress uniform, some in black tie, a nightclub-style celebration unfolds, with cabaret tables for actors and audience, balloons, party hats, free-flowing champagne, and a swing trumpet. The playing space, surrounded by audience on all sides, is also the dance floor, with couples swaying to music of the era and Bobbie Steinbach delivering the play’s signature tune, “Sigh no more, ladies,” as a jazz number to which listening gents snap their fingers as she turns “Hey nonny, nonny” into Elizabethan scat.

Of course, as has been true since Shakespeare cooked up this party in 1598, a couple of the guests are more scintillating than the rest. Berlioz did not call his opera Béatrice et Bénédict for nothing. And sure enough, Lady Disdain and Signior Mountanto — played here by tart, smart, long-married thespians Paula Plum and Richard Snee — are the life of the swank-on-a-shoestring ASP affair, managing to wed Noël Coward–esque sparring to the slapstick of the twin scenes in which, thinking themselves successful eavesdroppers, B&B are tricked into acknowledging their feelings for each other. Snee’s Benedick, trailing a pre-wireless hand mike, delivers a love-defying soliloquy in the manner of a suave if slightly smarmy stand-up comic. Then, when he perceives he’s being talked about and wants to listen, he secrets himself behind a centerpiece snatched from one of the tables and creeps with ridiculous obviousness toward the speakers — like some floral variant on Birnam Wood.

Still, the way Plum and Snee are so delicious as Beatrice and Benedick only underlines the play’s sometimes jarring contrast between proto drawing-room comedy, low comedy, and melodrama. And the production goes wholeheartedly with all of the genres, filling with sighs and thunder the main plot, in which Hero is betrothed to and then cruelly denounced by Claudio, and exaggerating the idiocy of malapropping constable Dogberry and his elderly sidekick Verges to the point of tedium. (Dogberry, of course, regards being called tedious as a compliment.)

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Related: Bard in the USA, Of myth and men, Review: The Seagull, The Corn Is Green, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Entertainment, Hector Berlioz, American Repertory Theatre,  More more >
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