I’m not a Shakespeare purist. I’ve reviewed productions set in a variety of times and places, including a "Twelfth Night" that unfolded in a cyber café, and thought they worked fine. So the idea of Pioneer Theatre Company’s current production of "Much Ado About Nothing" taking place in the Arthurian Middle Ages didn’t sound alarming.
But any production that reimagines Shakespeare — in fact, any production at all — needs two things: a consistent vision and respect for the playwright’s text. Unfortunately, this production struggles with both. There are some fine performances, and the second act becomes more grounded and focused, but that’s largely too little and too late.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Inconsistent tone and mismatched performances undermine the effectiveness of PTC’s production.
When » Reviewed on Feb. 21; continues Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Mar. 8, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where » Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University St., Salt Lake City
Running time » Two hours and 40 minutes (including intermission)
Tickets » $25 to $44 in advance; $5 more on the day of the show. Half price for students K–12 on Mondays and Tuesdays. Call 581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for tickets and information.
The first problem is that director Matt August’s direction in the first act is so over-the-top, especially in the parallel Benedick and Beatrice eavesdropping scenes, that it feels as if he is making fun of Shakespeare. His touch in the second act is more restrained, and consequently it moves much better.
The most consistent thing about this production is its inconsistency. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s costumes are just one example. The men wear fur or suits of armor while Beatrice and Hero have stylish, but very skimpy, dresses that look decidedly New Age. Leonato and Hero’s antlers and the Master’s white fur cape with its giant unicorn’s head provide a touch of fantasy, but other costumes, especially the children’s, look realistic and contemporary. The result is a hodgepodge of styles that distract from the play.
The blue motif for costumes and banners is a nice touch, and James Noone’s set and Paul Miller’s lighting create some striking images, especially the flickering orange lights of the tomb scene and the flower-decked arbor at the wedding. The use of candlelight throughout is lovely, but the men’s bath scene is totally anachronistic.
The performances are equally inconsistent. T. Ryder Smith’s Benedick is quick and clever and interacts playfully with the audience, but Rebecca Watson’s Beatrice delivers her lines like a stand-up comic waiting for the laughs, and her barbs seem bitter and spiteful. Not that you hear many of her lines: She speaks so fast that you miss them.
Ashley Wickett plays Hero like a silly, simpering schoolgirl. John Ahlin (Leonato), David Manis (Don Pedro), Christopher DuVal (Don John) and Terence Goodman (Antonio) offer strong support, and Terrell Donnell Sledge creates an earnest, impetuous Claudio.
Max Robinson is appropriately outrageous as Dogberry, unerringly sensing just how far to push the character. August’s casting children as the members of the watch is intriguing, although you can’t always understand them. Tobin Atkinson and Michael Dozier are alternately funny and vindictive as Borachio and Conrade, and Colleen Baum is an eloquent voice of reason as the Master. But why does Miles David Romney’s Balthazar wander through all the scenes singing?
"Much Ado About Nothing" depends on balance: the witty, romantic rivalry of the mature Beatrice and Benedick counterpointing the youthful ardor and naïveté of Hero and Claudio; the slapstick comedy of Dogberry and his cohorts undercutting the tragic overtones of Don John’s plot and Hero’s betrayal. Except in rare moments in the second act where Beatrice and Benedick reveal the deep desire for connection under their bravado, this production never finds that equilibrium.
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