BOTTOM LINE: Streamlined Shakespeare with some noteworthy performances, for the folks above 125th Street.
What is going on with Much Ado About Nothing this season? There are currently three productions of the Shakespearan comedy running in New York City (also at Theatre for a New Audience and The Secret Theatre). Gregory Couba’s simple, uncluttered modern dress version, playing at the 133rd Street Arts Center in Harlem, might be called “Much Ado 101” — it’s not high-concept and features no TV or movie stars. Staged on an appealing and utilitarian set and played for screwball-type laughs, it’s the Bard for beginners.
Essentially a romantic comedy with much better dialogue than most, Much Ado’s laughs come from a series of mistaken identities and misunderstandings (although not, as in most other mature Shakespeare comedies, from a female character doing male drag). The plot is set in motion when a group of Italian gentlemen, returning home from a successful military campaign, stop to visit the governor of Messina in Sicily. One of them, Claudio, falls hard for his host’s daughter, Hero. His boss, Don Pedro, agrees to help him to win her hand in marriage. Meanwhile, another soldier, Benedick, amuses himself by bantering with Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, a witty single lady who gives as good as she gets. Don Pedro and Claudio think these two are perfect for one another, and resolve to trick them into falling in love. So what’s the problem? Don Pedro’s villainous brother, who is jealous of Claudio and wants to prevent his happy marriage.
In most productions of Much Ado, the “secondary” couple, feisty Beatrice and prickly Benedick, tends to eclipse the more conventional lovers. Not so in this case: Donny Repsher hits all the right notes and then some as the idealistic young Claudio, who learns the hard way not to jump to conclusions, and Al-nisa Petty portrays his beloved Hero as sweet but strong and sensible as well. The cast as a whole is admirably diverse, and actors in some of the smallest parts do stand-out work, particularly Howard Collado as an evil henchman with a heart and Caleb Schaaf as a night watchman who is seriously bored with his job.
Much Ado is sometimes called a “problem play” because its merriment eventually takes a serious turn and its aura of love and friendship is temporarily obscured by anger and mistrust. For me, this isn’t a “problem,” but rather what makes the play one of Shakespeare’s most emotionally moving, as well as laugh-out-loud funny. Luckily, you have ample opportunity to see it this winter, even if you live way uptown, far from the bustle of Times Square: no-frills Shakespeare is on in Harlem.
(Much Ado About Nothing plays at the 133rd Street Arts Center, 308 West 133rd Street between Frederick Douglass Blvd. and St. Nicholas Avenue, through March 2, 2013. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30PM; Thursdays at 7:30PM; Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 3PM and 8PM; and Sundays at 5PM. Tickets are $22-$25 -- $20-$23 for students/seniors -- and are available at snappedproductions.com or by calling 347-762-7731.)