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Audiences are unlikely to be thinking about romance as they emerge from Michael Comlish’s Much Ado About Nothing. (I know the play is usually said to be Shakespeare’s, but a staging as aggressively unconventional as the one at the Clark Street Playhouse amounts to a claim of directorial ownership.) Nor are they likely to be thinking about language, or even comedy.
I, for one, came away thinking about doors. Doors in walls, hatches in floors, elevator doors that pop open with an electronic ping, warehouse bulkheads that rumble shut on tracks, balcony portals, trap doors, and at the very end of the evening, garage doors that admit cooling breezes to the auditorium. Perhaps naturally, those physical doors, scattered around the three quite different performance spaces to which the production travels, suggest doors to meaning—ones that open promisingly at the outset of this ferociously ambitious evening and then either drift or slam shut as the show progressively becomes more opaque.
At first—on a broad, red-and-white grid, accented by black-and-white costuming—it seems pretty clear where Comlish is headed with the Bard’s story of two lovesick couples and the meddling acquaintances who nearly scuttle their romances. Even those who don’t know that the director has recently been working with Richard Foreman’s avant-garde Ontological-Hysteric Theater Company will recognize a deconstructionist impulse at work. Mapping out the play’s relationships on what amounts to a stagewide graph may seem a trifle obvious, but it’s as good a starting point as any.
And as other elements fall into place, it’s clear enough what’s intended, at least on a surface level. The cast’s initial line readings—arch and artificial—serve notice that conventional acting values won’t be pursued. Imagery upstages words as archers shoot at targets, characters materialize on stage as if by magic, and a sound effect transforms an angled white panel into a persuasively utilitarian urinal wall. In such a setting, it’s no more surprising to have young Claudio (Leo Wolfe) burst into song when he realizes he’s in love with Hero (Grace Eboigbe) than it is to have the prince’s cloak unfurl into an enormous groundcloth from beneath which his bastard brother can later emerge like some tunnel-dwelling devil.
Where, amid all this fuss and folderol, are Beatrice and Benedick? Well, they’re also present, if not quite accounted for, in Comlish’s interpretation. Usually, these sharp-tongued romantic antagonists—so haplessly in love, so belligerently unwilling to admit it—are the play’s leading players, but this time, they’re relegated to supporting status, because this Much Ado isn’t nearly so much about the ado as it is about the nothing.
Deliberately and calculatedly so, let’s note. In the program, Comlish refers to Claudio’s girlfriend, the winsome, mistreated, and almost dialogueless Hero, as the play’s “central ‘nothing,’ because she lives in a world where she has nothing really to say about her marital fate.” That’s not untrue, I suppose, though my guess is that few viewers would come up with quite so literal a reading of the Bard’s title. What’s harder to see is what the director has gleaned—or wants audiences to glean—from his comparatively dark interpretation of the play. Comlish’s bio indicates that he prepared for this production by using material from Foreman’s notebooks to create an evening titled Nothing, and that he intends to return to that material in an evening titled Nothing II (Husband Beater/Wife Beater). In that context, I suppose it’s easy enough to fathom what he means when he writes of Much Ado’s descent from “a mechanistic heaven of social obligations…to the dark world of purgatory or hell,” a descent the production’s designers picture as a slide from the main auditorium’s rigid white grid, through a scattered, multiplatform wedding sequence in the theater’s lobby, to dimly lit scenes in the Clark Street Playhouse’s nearest approximation of “nothing”: a dank, unadorned warehouse room outfitted with mismatched seating that includes chairs, stools, and a solitary toilet.
All of this is feverishly imaginative, though often in ways that serve Comlish’s all-the-world’s-a-performance-space concept better than they serve the script. That’s especially true when the director’s choices become willfully perverse, as when he interrupts the play’s usually hilarious eavesdropping scene just as it’s getting under way, by placing Benedick (Andrew Sullivan) in a center-stage box, affirming that his buddies know he’s in there, and immediately breaking for intermission. The Bard’s joke (that Benedick is painfully gullible) must then wait until Comlish finishes his own joke (that Sullivan is painfully trapped in the box) while the audience wanders out to the lobby. But the new joke doesn’t work, because the audience knows the floor is riddled with trap doors, and all that really happens is that the scene’s energy drains away.
Other sequences are similarly problematic, at least in terms of giving the Bard his usual due, which admittedly isn’t the point. Comlish is pursuing a socially conscious reading of the play, with a stronger emphasis on the cruelty done to characters than on the clever stratagems they use to defend themselves. Still, the devices employed by the director are decidedly odd. The opening and closing of hidden doors gets so distracting that those who aren’t familiar with the plot might well lose its thread entirely. Scenes usually played for situational irony—Benedick misinterpreting Beatrice’s snarls as camouflaged affection, for instance—are effectively upstaged by music and physical business. Scenes in which the jokes are verbal are tarted up with visual punch lines, of which the most flagrant example is Constable Dogberry topping his “I am an ass” rant by ripping off his jacket to reveal a crimson, sequined bra. (Shouldn’t he be ripping off his trousers?) Either way, the moment is more distracting than edifying, and the malapropisms for which the character is usually celebrated fall by the wayside.
It doesn’t help that the Washington Shakespeare Company’s cast is uneven. Sullivan gets some mileage from audience knowledge of his identity as a gay conservative columnist when his Benedick declares that he doesn’t give a damn if women love him, “for truly, I love none.” Also getting titters at the matinee I attended was the outspoken advocate of same-sex marriage’s “I will live a bachelor” speech. Overall, he’s not bad, and he might be better if the staging concept allowed him to connect emotionally with Brook Butterworth’s Beatrice. She’s among the city’s most ingratiating actresses, and she mostly manages, despite unflattering costumes, to find ways to finesse the production’s artificial performance style. Others, alas, are entirely undone by it, including Wolfe, whose Claudio is dramatically persuasive only when singing, and Michael Miyazaki, who plays an authority figure so unauthoritatively that he might as well not be present.
The villains are better, particularly Christopher Henley as both the misled prince and the bastard brother who misleads him. (There’s a nice bit where the two characters are present simultaneously and the actor must dash back and forth between windows.) Michael Alan Oakley is also fun as one of the bastard brother’s smartass henchmen, and there are nifty electronic contributions from WSC co-founders Brian Hemmingsen (on tape) and Brian Desmond (on video).
But for all the imagination that’s being brought to the evening, including considerable design grace in a worrisomely complex technical production, it’s hard to escape the impression that the audience is being asked to give up a great deal more than it’s getting back. A Much Ado that undercuts the Bard’s verbal comedy and goes to great lengths to distance audiences emotionally, all in the name of concentrating on “nothing,” needs to make the “nothing” really something. That’s just not happening on Clark Street.
It’s not happening on 14th Street, either, though Kathleen Akerley is being pretty resourceful about making Harm’s Way comprehensible—no mean feat with a Mac Wellman play. The author’s oeuvre is avant-garde tragicomedy—a mix of absurdity and grotesquerie, with an emphasis on the latter.
Harm’s Way follows the exploits of a hotheaded outlaw named Santouche (Jonathon Church), who is a sort of noninnocent Candide traipsing through the American West. We meet him at the scene of a murder, where he grows indignant that a woman has killed her child for not eating properly—and eventually shoots her dead to teach her a lesson. That sort of ironic reversal is the sum and substance of the play. Santouche comes into contact with a gravedigger who insists on being buried alive by a corpse, a character named By Way of Being Hidden who’s literally up a tree, sideshow performers who make their money by not presenting a show, and the like.
A little of Wellman’s brand of strenuous whimsy goes a long way, and this two-act evening contains rather a lot of it. So, although the performers assembled by the Purchased Experiences Don’t Count Theatre Company are energetic, the evening becomes trying long before the final fade. CP