The clichés about love are endless: Love is forever. Love is blind. Love knows no bounds. We get it. It’s upon such truths (or perceived truths) that Shakespeare based his romantic comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. The latest rendition of the classic is in the last week of its run at the Guthrie this week, and although changes were made to it, much of the cliché still remained.
Artistic director Joe Dowling takes the centuries-old tale of hate-turned-blissful passion and spices it up with a pinch of oddity—General Dogberry’s (Peter Michael Goetz) annoyingly endearing tick of barking—and originality. The main characters, Benedick and Beatrice, are typically cast as fiesty young 20-somethings, but in Dowling’s interpretation, they’re cast as past-their-prime lovers, with Daniel Gerroll (Scrooge in the Guthrie’s 2010 A Christmas Carol) and the belle of European theater, Dearbhla Molloy, in the roles. The cast of other stand-out Guthrie favorites (Bob Davis, Raye Birk, Robert O. Berdahl, Michelle O’Neill, Bill McCallum, Nathaniel Fuller), and 1920s setting also add interest to the production, but other than those tweaks, Dowling lets Shakespeare’s work alone.
The script remains true to the old-English language in which it was originally penned, and follows the tale of two romances: one, between Hero (O’Neill) and Claudio (McCallum), is all roses and sunshine; the other, between Benedick and Beatrice, is a plotted affair to turn enemies into lovers. Amidst the loving and quarreling, trickery and deception is the jealous Don John, Shakespeare’s token bad guy and the roadblock in the lovers’ otherwise clear path. It’s three hours of twisted words, he-said-she-said, faking death to prove a point, love conquers all—you know, classic Shakespeare.
While the words are undoubtedly as powerful and comical as they were intended to be, the delivery of them is lacking. Yes, we understand that Benedick and Beatrice go from despising one another to writing love sonnets, but is understanding enough? Much Ado has garnered greatness on stage and on silver screen due to audiences seeking out the awkward tension and complete overhaul of emotions, not tongue twisters and slapstick physical humor. It’s in this journey from deep disliking to light-headed longing that the Guthrie’s production lacks. Instead of being a shock when the two enemies are tricked into love, it’s an anticlimactic conclusion to a moderately paced first act.
The saving grace of the show that balances out the sometimes-dragging scenes and sprinkling of dull moments is the laugh-out-loud acting of Dogberry and his crew: George Seacoal (H. Adam Harris), Verges (Fuller), Hugh Oatcake (Max Polski), and Borachio (Davis). This troupe of dimwitted, clumsy, clueless men picks up the pace and carries the second act’s many monologues and predictable outcomes. Also aiding the show is Riccardo Hernandez’s breathtaking set design, rich with emerald greens and well-curated props that perfectly complement Fabio Toblini’s costume choices of flapper dresses and well-tailored suits.
It’s a chore to revamp and energize a play as wordy and comically complicated as Much Ado About Nothing, and sometimes even the best actors in the nation can’t breathe new life into something that’s still just another cliché about love. As for this stab at the classic, come for the show, but don’t expect to leave with a renewed resolve to tackle Shakespeare. He’s still as long-winded as ever.
Much Ado About Nothing
Through November 5
Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second Ave., Mpls.