The Guthrie Theater opened its 2011-2012 season last night with a new Joe Dowling production of Much Ado about Nothing. One of Shakespeare’s more serious comedies, it is rich in life lessons as the work of a seasoned playwright.
The story begins as the soldiers of Don Pedro are welcomed home from a victorious campaign. But for one soldier, Benedick, his “war” with the sharp-witted Beatrice (the niece of Leonato) picks up more or less where it left off at some earlier point. Everyone around them knows of their sparring and contrives to get them to admit they love each other. Meanwhile, Beatrice’s cousin, Hero, and the soldier Claudio fall in love and plan to marry immediately. Don Pedro’s bastard brother, bitter about his lesser position, plots to derail the marriage and shame the family. He succeeds temporarily; the family is suspicious, though, and hatches their own plot to restore her honor and bring the lovers back together.
Set in the 1920’s, Dowling has also chosen to veer from convention by casting the endearingly caustic Beatrice and Benedict as 60-somethings. Played by Dearbhla Malloy and Daniel Gerroll, the age shift did nothing to diminish the impact of their story in Shakespeare’s larger message about love and pride. Although Malloy’s Beatrice took until the foiled wedding to show that she did indeed care for someone other than herself, Malloy was every bit the match for Gerroll’s brilliantly funny Benedict. Comic timing like his is a joy to watch.
The buffoons are headed up by an irresistibly funny Peter Michael Goetz as the Constable Dogberry. Goetz garnered an appropriate share of the laughs playing, quite literally, on the character’s name. Although his cohorts, the watchmen, were a little too studied in their physical business, schtick this broad certainly fits with Shakespeare tradition.
The young women of Leonato’s household are somewhat lumped together in this production with little to distinguish them from each other, particularly noticeable with Margaret (Emily Gunyou Halaas), whose moment of indiscretion at her lady Hero’s window results in Hero’s apparent demise. The bawdy servant and her sleezy boyfriend all but disappeared.
A cheery set, designed by Riccardo Hernández, with its blazing red deck, a saffron-colored draped ceiling and a striated green back wall certainly echoed the intensity of the relationships and the buoyant nature of the plot, but it also made the fabulous costumes by Fabio Toblini, particularly at the masque ball, fight for their rightful place.
Overall, the play is sprinkled with sparkling bits that delight at the moment but don’t always do much to carry the story along. (Beatrice treating her nasty cold in Hero’s scene about her wedding comes to mind.) It falls to the audience to connect the dots for themselves to some extent. If you know the play, that won’t be an issue. If you don’t, go anyway and be dazzled by the costuming and Gerroll’s performance. He’s just wonderful.
The play runs through November 5.