Farce Time

Kristen Johnston and Sam Waterston in Much Ado About Nothing.Photo: Michael Daniel

If you like your Shakespeare demotic, your comedy as knockabout farce, and a father and daughter played by a real-life father and daughter, the Public Theater’s Central Park Much Ado About Nothing should be your thing. There is not that much logic in the piece anyway, and David Esbjornson’s staging has seen to it that its modest sediment be eliminated like so much dregs. The production may lack elevation or depth, but oh, my, is it broad.

This may be right for an entertainment three quarters of whose tickets are free, and thus synonymous with populist; one performed outdoors on lulling summer evenings, and thus almost by definition mindless. It offers pleasant sights (cheekily archaizing décor by Christine Jones, and garden-party-chic costumes by Jess Goldstein), lots of Italianate pop music composed or coordinated by Mark Bennett, and enough dancing by Jane Comfort to fill a discotheque.

Like other Shakespeare comedies, it has a dark as well as a sunny plot. The former is here laughed off by turning its villain, Don John, into a naughty jester, played by Christopher Evan Welch, a specialist in buffoonery, in appropriately pajama-ish pants. There is hardly a performance not over-the-top in Esbjornson’s messy Messina, described in the program as “under the shadow of Mt. Edna,” perhaps confusing the volcano Etna with Barry Humphries’s Dame Edna Everage. Accordingly, Benedick falls into a well, where he is pelted with orange peel; Dogberry falls off the back seat of a passing bicycle; remorseful Claudio falls prostrate not before Hero’s presumed tomb but to a Hero transported in a transparent palanquin toward which he turns his backside.

So the drama of Claudio, Hero, and Don John suffers—not least from Lorenzo Pisoni’s inept Claudio. Don Pedro, the seasoned prince of Aragon, is played by Peter Francis James as a jeune premier, except when he leaps like a monkey onto another character; Friar Francis is reduced much of the time to an Italian pop singer; and Benedick and Beatrice, clearly meant to be high comedy, are transmogrified into the low-grade high jinks of Jimmy Smits and Kristen Johnston. Still, Elisabeth Waterston is a dignified Hero; Dominic Chianese a gallant old Antonio trying to duel Claudio with his cane; and Sean Patrick Thomas a smooth, almost too-well-spoken Borachio. I am disturbed by the worthy Brian Murray’s having been egged into overdoing Dogberry with too many leers and rubatos, and by Sam Waterston’s too blustery Leonato. Even if we do not agree with Shaw that the play’s virtue is all in its language (Shakespeare as merely “a great musician”), we may mourn that the music here is beleaguered by everything from barrio to Chinatown accents, and by horseplay that coarsens, or hoarsens, its lyre.

Nevertheless, there is enough to look at (including Michael Chybowski’s festive lighting) and listen to (Italian songs in yell, if not bel, canto) to cover up at least some missteps and to bedeck a balmy estival night, if not with diamonds, at least with funky costume jewelry.

The Russians are coming a cropper, both at the Lincoln Center Festival and over at Bard College’s SummerScape. At the former, I saw Forbidden Christmas or the Doctor and the Patient by the Georgian artist-writer-director-cineast-puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze, about a man he recalled from his childhood who imagined he was a car. The show is part pantomime, part fairy tale (an angel performs miracles, the dead appear and speak), and part puppet show—at least in that the characters have no more depth than puppets.

Chito (Mikhail Baryshnikov) loses his fiancée to another and, distraught, finding a window crank and appropriating some other unlikely objects, fancies himself a car. His doctor puts up with this for seven years, then, on the eve of Christmas (forbidden by the Soviets), rattles around with the “car” in search of a sick girl. During an interminable night journey, wherein the doctor also visits his wife’s grave and has a colloquy with her, he finally roughs up Chito and so de-cars him. The sick girl turns out to be Chito’s daughter by the doctor’s lost sweetheart, divorced and remarried to Chito (unbeknown to the doctor!). In the end, Chito, a good husband and father, re-cars himself, and all live happily ever after.

Baryshnikov mimes compellingly and speaks passably; Jon DeVries harrumphs heroically as the harassed doctor. The others are undistinguished, as is the simple tale, overlong at 90 minutes with scant and simplistic dialogue.

“In the end, Chito, a good husband and father, re-cars himself—and all live happily ever after.”

Gabriadze’s visuals are unappealing and sometimes incomprehensible; canned music and singing are of a very humdrum nature; and rudimentary choreography for mostly nondancers by Luis Perez, who also plays the angel, is just serviceable.

Also at Lincoln Center, Egyptian Nights—Piotr Fomenko’s pathetic patchwork lamely subtitled Attempt at a Composition for Theater Scenes, Etudes, Episodes—is a mishmash of bits and pieces from Pushkin’s prose and Valery Brusov’s poetry, never intended to be compacted and staged. With a cast notable for neither talent nor looks, it features a lot of meaningless running round and climbing along walls; also attempts at hoisting oneself into an auditorium balcony, not to mention supposedly funny orgiastic sex scenes with the participants cavorting under a red cloth. Party conversation among a group of pretentious and lackluster characters was mostly disconnected and aimless, story line barely embryonic, and significant meaning undetectable. The woman translating in our earphones was so thickly Russian-accented and unable to keep up as to make a translator of the translator strongly desiderated.

Meanwhile at Bard College, The Inspector General, Gogol’s brilliant satire of provincial greed, gullibility, hypocrisy, and bureaucracy, was manhandled by the director, Valery Fokin, and the actors of the famous (albeit now renamed) Alexandrinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. With expressionism, Surrealism, and absurdism grafted pell-mell onto the play’s only slightly caricatural proceedings, and what with actors unable to impress with grotesque shenanigans, I was reminded of Gogol’s angry comment at the 1836 premiere of the play at the Alexandrinsky, to the effect that vaudeville was the ruin of Russian acting. That this misguided mounting won every conceivable Russian prize may have been the only funny thing about it.

Farce Time