Much Ado About Nothing
If you attend every Shakespeare production staged in New York for the next twenty years, you may not see as appealing a performance as Jonathan Cake puts forth as Benedick in the current "Much Ado About Nothing" at The Duke Theater on 42nd Street. Moreover, you’ll be present for few principally American Shakespeare productions as good as this one in twice that number of years.
I say principally as Cake is very much an import from the country known more for its actors than for its food, tortes included.
But Cake isn’t all that’s appetizing in this tasty confection of a show. Proof of this "Much Ado"’s excellence is indicated in its two most noticeable weaknesses: its Hero (Michelle Beck) does not seem virginal, and the second act could have been cut further, say by an extra ten minutes.
That’s really about all that’s less than sterling in a yummy presentation that is often hilarious, sometimes affecting and almost invariably lively and engaging.
Matthew Amendt, in the part of the young lover Claudio, more than holds the stage with Cake, Maggie Siff is properly tart and spirited as Beatrice, and John Christopher Jones and John Keating, as Dogsberry and Verges, are an inspired pair of clowns.
Director Arin Arbus keeps these actors moving about with such facility that the farcical business of the show seems artless while Constance Hoffman’s Edwardian costumes present the players in handsome, tasteful attire. The audience sees men in blue coats with gold buttons and braided epaulets and women in long brown woolen skirts and high collars. It does not see the complex staging of the scenes, which seems invisible.
Some fans of Cake may find the presence of those clothes disappointing, of course. After all, Cake has become known in recent theater seasons for showing off his well-muscled nude body. But, while he does show his cheeks, it’s the cheeks on his face which are revealed when he shears off his whiskers to present himself in a more desirable fashion for Beatrice, the sparring spinster whom he is manipulated by his male friends into pursuing.
That story is at the center of any good production of the play, and none can succeed if the leads aren’t powerful personalities who have chemistry with one another. I’m not sure that Cake and Siff like one another off-stage, but they are abundantly compelling when they are together on-stage.
This is assisted by Arbus’ willingness to let the dramatic pauses weigh upon the audience when the two are alone together. Here is a director who understands that for farce to be funny there must be tension, which means that not everything can be rushed along.
Arbus also has chosen a cast of players who are capable of understanding the lines and then worked with them so that all that’s said is perfectly clear. (One wishes this were not a quality that was so often lacking in American Shakespeare productions.)
Moreover, Arbus has had the good sense to arrange her production on a bare stage that gives prominence to her fine cast. The production’s parquet floor is a playing space and not a substitute for skill in the company.
And foremost among these is indeed Cake. Should readers of this review make the journey to see him they will promptly come to know why he was, by many reports, seriously entertained as a possible replacement for Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. More, they’ll see an actor who is in so many ways Daniel Craig’s better -- and not merely as a Shakespearean. For Cake is much taller, handsomer, smoother and funnier, and he holds the stage with the charisma and wit of Rex Harrison and the flexibility of Kenneth Branagh.
"Much Ado About Nothing?" I think not.