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Open: 02/12/09- Close: 02/28/09 Much Ado About Nothing
Reviewed for By: Ashley Griffin

The Oberon Theatre Ensemble’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is similar to an aspiring quilter’s first attempt at making a quilt. You can tell it’s a quilt, it’s colorful and fluffy, but the colors don’t quite go together the way they’re placed, the pieces appear to have been cut incorrectly, and are stretched into slightly off, disfigured shapes, and the right hand side looks like it was made for a queen-sized bed, while the left would undoubtedly only fit a twin. 

The difficulty is that this is not Oberon Theatre Ensembles first attempt at a quilt, as it were. Oberon is celebrating its twelfth season, and fourth year at Theatre Row. Yet their Much Ado… has all the earmarks of a first offering. If it were a first attempt, I would be looking forward to watching Oberon's growth. As it is, I wonder what’s been happening for the last twelve years. Simply put, Oberon completely missed the boat on what Much Ado... is about.

 It is in fact Shakespeare who saves the day here. Much Ado About Nothing is a brilliant and tremendously fun play. The language and plot are so witty and entertaining that you could have just about anyone relatively adept at the language stand onstage and read it straight out of the script, and still come away feeling like your evening wasn’t completely wasted. Much Ado…, one of Shakespeare’s most well loved comedies, tells the story of two romantic couples. Beatrice and Benedick are intelligent, witty, feisty, and have foresworn the opposite sex. They hate each other with a passion, and of course are perfect for each other. Beatrice’s cousin Hero falls in love with, and becomes engaged to, Benedick’s close friend Claudio. Their marriage is foiled when Claudio is misled to believe that Hero has been unfaithful and slanders her name. Add in a cartoonish constable and a wicked villain, and you have a delightful evening of Shakespeare at his best.

 The Oberon Ensemble, however, missed the boat. Like our misshapen patchwork quilt, this production of Much Ado… was sad when it should have been funny, funny when it should have been sad, whispered when it should have been shouted, static when it should have been accelerating, and slow when it should have been quick. Oberon did itself a great disservice by cutting their playing space practically in half (the center square of the stage was painted, and the action stayed for the most part within that square), which meant that a person meant to be secretly eavesdropping on another was in reality directly next to them. In a play based on overheard whisperings and secret conversations, it was very difficult to keep track of who had really overheard what, making the plot especially confusing.

 The play was apparently set in the present day – though I saw no evidence of that except for the odd use of a very out-of-date cell phone (was this show set in the present day or ten years ago?) and the contemporary pop music played at the final wedding. The set consisted of two trunks, which actually could have been utilized to great effect, since one of the themes of Much Ado… is the roles we play, and perceive others to be playing, and could have been utilized as a “playbox” pulling out the masks, and other things used in the play to conceal or reveal identity, much as a child or clown plays dress up; alas, the opportunity was lost. The lights consisted of day (yellow), and night (blue), so the lighting plot looked especially sparse. I don’t know if anyone changed costume the entire show (except for Hero changing into her wedding dress); even the priest was wearing his soldier garb under his robes – in plain sight. This, combined with multiple actors doubling in multiple roles, made the scenes in which a person’s identity was meant to be unidentifiable, or confused with someone else almost laughable.

 The actors' performances were one note across the board. It seemed as if the word “objective” was never brought up in rehearsal. In a play meant to be teaming with large emotional changes, and huge character arcs, what we saw with the characters was what we got – regardless of the situation. Lines were dropped, and stumbled over constantly, including some of the most famous lines in the play. The two exceptions were Mac Brydon as Benedick and Cotton Wright as Hero. Benedick’s wit and merriment make him one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s characters. In these respects Mr. Brydon came up short, though he made a fantastic transition to the serious Benedick, who is deeply hurt by Claudio’s actions, and even more deeply in love with Beatrice. Ms. Wright was lovely as an innocent girl in love for the first time, and allowed herself to truly experience the pain of being humiliated by her beloved. Though she could have gone further, she made a nice transition. Ensemble member John Dewey’s stoic performance of one of Shakespeare’s most famous songs “Sigh no more, ladies sigh no more” was fun, and the standout moment of the evening.

 The Oberon Ensemble has all the potential to “make a good quilt”, and when that quilt is Shakespeare, it is no easy feat. However, I would suggest rereading the manual, and maybe even bringing in an expert quilter to guide them in their next endeavor. I hope to see them improve and grow over their next twelve years, and some serious work now will only assist their future success. After all, a stitch in time saves nine. 

Beckett Theater - Theater Row : 410 W 42nd St