The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater
By: David Sheward
Though at it times it seems as though they are playing The Taming of the Shrew rather than Much Ado About Nothing, Hamish Linklater and Lily Ra
be make a perfect pair of battling would-be lovers in the Public Theater’s first production of the 52nd season of free Shakespeare in Central Park. Linklater is particularly intense as the confirmed bachelor Benedick tricked into believing Rabe’s waspish Beatrice is smitten with him. Sporting a full beard which he later only partially shaves off, Linklater makes Benedick an easily provoked hothead and he perfectly times his rants for maximum comic effect.
Rabe calls to mind a young Katharine Hepburn or Jean Arthur in one of those dazzlingly witty 1940s movies as she willfully rejects the manifestations of romantic love but gradually warms to them. When the two get together the wit flashes and at times director Jack O’Brien allows the decibel level to get slightly higher than it should, but the sparks of mutual attraction are real and glittering.
O’Brien has decided to take Shakespeare’s original setting as a cue for concept. Set designer John Lee Beatty has created a gorgeous Sicilian villa, complete with a vegetable garden, which serves as the single location and costume designer Jane Greenwood dresses the cast in elegant early 20th century clothes. The play opens with Italian dialogue, gradually seguing into the Bard’s immortal speeches. The director adds a hokey gimmick of moving a huge garden wall with the magic of music, but that’s the only sour note in an otherwise lyrical, enchanting production.
The supporting company is chock full of able comedians, both experienced and new to the scene. Brian Stokes Mitchell lends his hearty baritone to the virile captain Don Pedro while Pedro Pascal is a devilishly attractive villain as his bastard brother Don John. As Beatrice’s distinguished uncle Leonato, John Glover gives equal weigh to the merry fooling in the plot to deceive his niece and Benedick and to the heart-rending sorrow required when he must sham mourning for his daughter, Hero (a lovely Ismenia Mendes). Jack Cutmore-Scott endows Hero’s suitor Claudio with the appropriate dash and impetuosity.
The only segment of this zestful production that doesn’t really work is the so-called comic relief. Perhaps because he has given the lead lovers a free hand to be as broad as they wish, the clownish types come across as exaggerated. John Pankow as the buffoonish constable Dogberry and Zoe Winters as the shrewish waiting gentlewoman Margaret are the worst offenders. But much of this Ado makes up for any deficiencies.
June 16-July 6. The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, W. 81 St. and Central Park West, NYC. Tue.-Sun., 8 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. Free. (212) 539-8500 or www.publictheater.org.