The Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing (through December 15) is the third I’ve seen this year, and while it’s not the best, it can stand proudly with the rest, keeping company with exceptionally strong and funny productions. I’d venture to say we’re living in an exceptional time for Shakespeare, especially in New York, especially his comedies; the city’s actors and directors have mastered a manner of voicing Elizabethean verse in contemporary expression so that the jokes feel like they were written yesterday, the humor fresh despite its age, from Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn to the Delacorte in Central Park.
This production in particular ought to feel contemporary because it’s part of the Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, which travels the city performing plays for groups who can’t even take advantage of free Shakespeare in the Park tickets—those who don’t have a whole day to stand in line or who can’t get to the line to begin with: people in prison, people in homeless shelters and senior centers. This Much Ado is performed in cafeterias, gymnasia and rec rooms, performed on a 12′ x 8′ square of green carpet with limited props that can be scooped up and plopped down in almost any room. (After touring the city, the production settles for a limited run at the Public Theater’s East Village home.) This is truly Shakespeare for the people, neither highfalutin like Alan Cumming’s one-man Macbeth nor dumbed down like Ethan Hawke’s, but made truly relevant for disenfranchised audiences. Guests from the Bowery Mission were doubled over at the performance I attended, cackling at Shakespeare’s nearly 400-year-old gender-insult screwballing and mistaken-identity schemery.
To get the audience into it, the show began with a line producer introducing the actors in character, then raising the most basic themes by asking for shows of hands. (“Who here has ever been stabbed in the back?”) The actors performed soliloquies as gossipy asides to the audience; they incorporated cell phones, ciphered at least a few prop-joints. And it all worked to involve the crowd: this was a boisterous audience, hissing at the villain Don John, cheering for the heroes. But it’s really the jokes that win people over, the physical comedy especially. Michael Braun as Benedick plays his famous hiding-in-a-tree-and-eavesdropping scene climbing over audience members as he moves through rows. Samantha Soule as Beatrice outdoes him in her parallel scene; she sits on audience members, concealing her face behind a program or by removing and then donning an audience member’s hat; at one point, she even crawled under the seats. But it’s really Lucas Caleb Rooney’s Dogberry that makes the show worth seeing: it’s a guttural, hopping mad, and floppingly physical turn so funny he could hardly keep a straight face, let alone the actors playing against him. An usher was laughing so hard next to me that his walkie-talkie went clattering to the floor.
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