Beware the good Prince Don Pedro and his men. They've just returned from a successful battle, and it's now time to conquer the much more elusive task: courting women. It gets dicey, as it always does, but at least they can enjoy the scenery: they're lodged at the governor's large estate in Messina, a port on the island of Sicily. Surely a little rest and relaxation in such posh quarters is just what the doctor ordered?
Actually, no, at least not in the Queens Players' new production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, at the Secret Theater. For in director Richard Mazda's version, this crew has not ended up at a Sicilian estate but at "a street strewn with boxes where Leonato's cardboard dwelling is the best on the street and where everyday objects are casually thrown away. Mazda has named this unique style "Trash Period," and indeed, there are boxes aplenty, along with garbage bags for costumes.
For the record, there are precisely three New York productions of MUCH ADO this month, which is a bit of a surprising fate for a comedy that W.H. Auden once dismissed as "boring." Complaining that "Shakespeare treats the story perfunctorily," Auden pointed out that the bard "shows some carelessness in putting it together." There's truth in this: the central love story, between Claudio and Hero, feels both undercooked and overly detailed, while the play's villain, the bastard Don John, barely registers as a three-dimensional human.
But there is a winning wit to be found in the text, especially in the subplot between Beatrice and Benedick, who engage in spirited and duel-like banter before succumbing to love. And while Mazda's production never makes a convincing case for its unusual concept, it does feature some strong performances and a rapturous musical score.
A quick plot summary for the unacquainted: At the play's start, Claudio has hopelessly fallen in love with Hero, the daughter of Leonato the governor, and the prince Don Pedro hatches a plan to fix them up. It works well enough, until that pesky Don John ruins the day by convincing Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful. The tension escalates, through a faked death and a woman in disguise, until all is made right.
Many of the most memorable performances here are around the edges of the main story. As the good prince Don Pedro, Cliff Miller is a grounded and empathetic presence, helping his inferior Claudio find love and then persecuting Hero when it appears she's been unfaithful. Marc Castle, as Leonato's brother Antonio, exudes a quirky and pitch-perfect absent-mindedness. With very limited stage time as Friar, C.L. Weatherstone hilariously deadpans through a few scene-stealers.
Conversely, John C. Nagy III and Connie Castanzo, as Claudio and Hero, fade a bit into the woodwork in their scenes, and it's hard not to partially blame the text. They're not the most dynamic of young lovers, and you may find yourself less than fully invested in the fate of their future marriage. Beatrice and Benedick have the spicier material, with their abrasive banter and verbal dexterity, and here the production benefits from a sparkling turn by its Beatrice, Kate Siepert. Her partner is played by the mightily accomplished Albert Bonilla, whose exuberance sometimes feels as if it could've been reigned in a bit more in rehearsal. You can sense Bonilla giving in to almost every one of his comic instincts, and as a result, his scenes with Siepert often lack any true chemistry.
But the evening's real star is the music, performed (and composed) by Jamey Grisham on an Autoharp. Grisham's score is as lively as it is diverse, so much so that I'd be eager to hear his treatment of Shakespeare's other comedies. ("The music you will hear tonight has been influenced by the likes of Byrd, Tallis, Farmer, Dowland, and Morely," writes Grisham in a program note. I'll take his word for it.) For better or worse, the songs are so pleasant that during some of the later stretches of plot, I started yearning for more of them.
Mazda's set designer Helen Ammon, and costume designer Beth Williams Garrett, have taken his vision as seriously as possible, and there are several well-executed moments on stage. But the "Trash Period" aesthetic lends itself too easily to distraction. Particularly in Queens, one of most ethnically and economically diverse corners of the world, there's something a little disquieting about cloaking well-scrubbed actors in the garb of homelessness, all for the sake of comedy. In any case, between Grisham's music and some sound acting, such elaborate design choices seem unnecessary; in Shakespeare, as usual, it's the words and the human follies that really count.