Berkeley Rep opened a stylish and visually rich production of William Shakespeare’s dark sex comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” on Tuesday in the company’s new Roda Theater performance space on Addison Street.
“Much Ado” features Shakespeare’s classic bickering couple, Beatrice and Benedick. These are two young people who can’t stand each other. They spend their time together trading insults – only to discover in the end that they are passionately in love.
“Much Ado” sets itself a tough assignment. It compares the human passion for war with the human passion for love, and looks for some kind of scale on which these two polar behaviors can be measured and evaluated.
In the basic set-up, soldiers returning home from battle seek out the women they are interested in. Director Brian Kulick has set the play during World War I, Italy, and, with scenic designer Mark Wendland, has given the production a powerful visual identity.
At the top of the play, for example, a steeply angled white platform with stylized red roses growing from it rakes sharply upstage away from the audience. This creates a white hillside spotted with flowers on which the returning soldiers lounge to gather their bearings before plunging back into gentle society and the art of lovemaking.
At the same time, a large, elegant, stone mansion, presumably the house in which much of the play’s action unfolds, hangs in the air over the back of the stage. This is a reminder of domestic values, versus military values. At times the house descends to stage level where it can be rolled around as a backdrop for other scenes. On one occasion, the house opens.
Elsewhere, returning soldiers in their skivvies splash from waist up in a pool of water set below stage level. On several occasions, rows of leafless white trees, either silhouetted against a bright backdrop, or descending from the flyspace above, comment on the human effort to organize nature.
In one particularly striking scene, the players upend several baskets of oranges, rolling them onto the large white performance area, where the oranges sit randomly for several scenes as the actors walk around and through them.
“Much Ado” is a play that meditates on the conflict between yin and yang. Its resolution, Elizabethan-style, requires wit, compassion, awareness and humility. “Nothing” of the play’s title is a pun on an Elizabethan slang word for female genitalia.
As Beatrice and Benedick trash-talk their way through the play’s "merry war," several bitter malcontents try to wreck the world of romance with insidious counterplots.
Shakespeare fills his story with many double-meanings and juxtapositions of paradox. Such paradoxes reflect the contradictions that seem inherent in the conflict between the passion for love and the passion for war.
If there’s a minus to this production, it’s that the stylish visual spectacle threatens to overwhelm the actors and the human part of the production. The story of Beatrice (a subdued Francesca Faridany) and Benedick (a hesitant Sterling Brown), in particular, seems to get lost at times in the large, extravagant staging.
Likewise, the aborted wedding of Hero (Noel True) and Claudio (Nathan Darrow) feels at times generic on the striking, visually-oriented, white set, rather than personal and human.
But the performances themselves are generally proficient. Charles Shaw Robinson is smooth and effective as the understated prince Don Pedro, his quick judgments that work well in the battlefield bringing havoc to the peacetime landscape.
Elijah Alexander is a disturbing presence as the prince’s villainous, slightly pigeon-toed brother Don John, scheming to ruin the lives of others. Julian Lopez-Morillas brings a wide band of emotion to Leonato, father of the bride – joyous, preoccupied, stuffy, indignant, humiliated, and compassionate.
Former Pickle Circus and Cirque de Soleil clown Geoff Hoyle is an amusing Dogberry, the unhinged, crackpot cop who speaks in his own wacky language of malapropisms. Andy Murray is sinister henchman Borachio, brought to justice finally by Dogberry and his motley crew.
“Much Ado about Nothing” is a dark story that tries to understand the complicated human relationship between the passions of war and the passions of love. Berkeley Rep has mounted a stylish, thoughtful and visually striking staging of this difficult play.