A REVIEW: Best Shakespeare Comedy Production
Three milestones in my long life started Monday with Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Director Ethan McSweeny moved the scene from Sicily to mid-30’s Cuba and enhanced the production with tangos, parrots and Cuba Libres, the mixture of white rum, lime and cola that was the first alcoholic drink of my New Orleans youth. This setting permitted Mr. McSweeny, his crew and cast to create sight gags that keep the audience laughing constantly.
Indeed, costume designer Clint Ramos clothes actresses in Depression-era sinuous long dresses and almost every actor brandishes a moustache. Set designer Lee Savage created a very Caribbean hacienda with balconies and lots of stairways, featuring circular steps at one side. Choreographer Marcos Santana has a real Latino ball, inspired to design dances and movements throughout the show — always under Ethan McSweeny’s direction.
Intentionally or not, Shakespeare’s words are not the paramount factor in this show. They are handled with brilliance by players led by Derek Smith’s Benedick and Kathryn Meisle as Beatrice. The splendid cast never resorts to pie-in-the-face slapstick, but seemingly everything else; and all their lines sparkle and shine through all the misfortunes thrown in their way. If you’ve never seen his comedies, this is the one to break in on. As I said, this is the “best Shakespeare comedy production” I’ve ever seen in 76 years of tasting theatre from the audience and as a critic.
Among fellow playgoers for Monday night’s press preview was Henry Schalizki, looking dapper as he has all his 90 years; I have seldom seen him since I moved to Frederick. He accompanied his partner, Bob Davis, to Washington openings; last year they were married, I read in The Washington Post. It turns out he came alone to the theater’s Sydney Harman Hall. When I asked about Bob, Henry sighed: “He died six months ago.” This left me as the single surviving critic who opened the Kennedy Center on September 8, 1971 — WETA’s Robert Aubry Davis’ birthday, as I discovered at “Much Ado About Nothing.” He was 22.
The third milestone? On the College Park campus, the University of Maryland has a memorial designed for the brilliant progenitor of the Muppets. On a plaque I’ve never seen, but I’m told, it says Jim Henson started television on the TV-9 morning show that lured me away from The Washington Post; my single memento was a full-page Post advertisement that sits at the top of the stairs on North Market. Kermit the Frog did not appear until WRC-TV Jim Kovachs programmed the Muppets’ “Sam and Friends.”
And Kermit is the top star of the movie, “The Muppets.” The now-internationally famous frog shares credits with humans Jason Segal, villain Chris Cooper and the amazing Amy Adams, whose acting I’ve long admired; turns out the admired actress sings and shakes a very curvy leg. On the other hand the film cannot be recommended for anyone over 13; children have driven the box office over $60 million in its first two weeks.
Count ‘em up: I learned that I’m only the surviving critic who was present for Lenny Bernstein’s “Mass” that opened the Kennedy Center on September 8, 1971. I was thrown together with Jim Henson’s Muppets for the Friday radio show I do with WFMD’s Bob Miller.
And the week began with the best Shakespeare comedy production I have ever seen. The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing’s” run extends until New Year’s Day. The other milestones have nothing to do with you, gentle readers. But on January 2, 2012, you will lose the last opportunity to witness director Ethan McSweeny’s dazzling interpretation of many people’s favorite comedy.