A Merry Christmas in Italy, 1940s, Courtesy of William Shakespeare

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Much Ado about Nothing

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

A lonely GI peels potatoes in a warehouse in World War II Italy as Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas” on a radio at the back of the room. It is the 1940s, Christmas season, a glorious transfer in time of William Shakespeare’s 1600 comedy Much Ado about Nothing. In the show, that just opened at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at Drew University, Madison, the radio station also plays Perry Como singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and a dozen other holiday favorites.

The Shakespeare Theatre has done a wondrous job of moving Shakespeare’s play forward 340 some years and, at the same time, placing it in the Christmas season. There is a joyously decorated, tall, dark green Christmas tree in the play, background yuletide music and, at the end, a heart-warming scene in which people dance around the room, snow falling gently on the stage, as the radio station plays “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

The World War II setting, men in army jackets, and Christmas atmosphere, make Much Ado about Nothing a holiday treat, a big, bright gift wrapped package under the tree. Shakespeare would have been proud.

Much Ado is the dual story of Benedick and Beatrice, two lovers who struggle to find each other, and a woman, Hero, and her boyfriend, Claudio, scheduled to be married in a ceremony that is derailed at the last minute. There is lots of love and plenty of turbulence in the story of the two pairs of lovers, all told as the holiday approaches.

Much Ado is a witty play and director Scott Wentworth has wrung every ounce of comedy out of the script. In several marvelous scenes, he takes the 1600s “Prince’s Guard” and turns them into a rag-tag World War II Civil Defense unit, with a blustery leader in his hard hat and several energetic but pretty inept members. They parade around the neighborhood with a sign that misspells “vigilance” as “vigitance.” They yell and scream and do very little until, in a mammoth mix-up, they chase all the wrong people.

There is another humorous scene in which Benedick, eager to snoop on friends who have news of his beloved Beatrice, hides behind a Christmas tree, pushing it about the stage to keep up with his buddies, who walk from side to side on the stage. In yet a third comic bit, two cousins, knowing that Beatrice is hiding under a table, prattle on about how much Benedick loves her. Director Wentworth gets a lot of deserved laughter in these bits and they add a lot of levity to the story.

The centerpiece of the show is Hero’s reported betrayal of Claudio, attested to by many. Her accusers claim she definitely had a man in her room the night before the wedding. There is no doubt about it. Or is there?

Wentworth gets strong performances in this delightful romp. His two stars, Marion Adler as Beatrice and director Wentworth as Benedick, are in real life married to each other and on stage have unmistakable electricity. The betrayed Claudio is nicely portrayed by Charles Pasternak. The tall, domineering Raphael Nash Thompson plays Leonato, head of the household. Susan Maris is convincing as Hero, accused of sleeping with everybody. Rachael Fox is a delight as her cousin Margaret, who whirls from one end of the stage to the other in just about everything she does. Other top performances are from John Hickok as Don Pedro and James Costello, Victoria Nassif and Fox as the watchmen and women.

The staging of the show, which opens on a nearly bare set with a huge 1940s poster hanging on the wall, is deft. Scenery such as Christmas trees and chairs move on and off unobtrusively and, of course, the snow falls merrily at the end of the play.

One chronic criticism historians have of Much Ado about Nothing, and most of Shakespeare’s work, is that, other than politics, he does not tell you much about the history of the day. 1600 Italy, torn apart by wars for centuries, was jammed packed with history and you learn virtually none of it.

The audience is told that the soldiers are in Messina, Sicily, apparently in World War II, and nothing else. It should have been mentioned that Messina was quite famous. After the allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943, General George S. Patton and his Seventh Army outraced British General Bernard Montgomery to take the city in a fascinating chapter of the conflict. This was ignored. If the director had room for Bing Crosby, he certainly should have made room for General Patton.

This is a minor criticism. There is not much to dislike in Much Ado about Nothing.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Sets: Michael Ganio, Costumes: Candida Nichols, Lighting: Peter West, Sound: Steven L. Beckel. The play is directed by Scott Wentworth. It continues through December 28.

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