Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the New York Shakespeare Exchange

Thomas Burns Scully

OnStage New York Critic

Shakespeare’s universality makes him rife for reinvention. This is often the mantra that spurs forward the now four-hundred year old conversation over his work. It has most certainly been the mode for New York Shakespeare Exchange as of late. These are the people who had a cast of ten play the single role of Hamlet, who frequently perform Shakespeare in bars in the financial district, who adapted The Rape of Lucrece in to a full length play meditating on the sexual plight of modern woman. Without exception, these have been exceptional works. The announcement that they were planning a “Trump-Era” Much Ado About Nothing may have prompted skepticism in some, but the results, as they so often do, speak for themselves.

Hyper-Modern, with eighties flair, and hints of cyberpunk would be a reasonably apt description of the aesthetic director Ross Williams has created. That may sound cluttered, but it actually unifies the production. Everything from the po-mo/EDM lighting and sound scheme, to the Johnny Mnemonic VR headsets, to the vaguely punky/vaguely glammy uniforms comes together to build a world that feels endearingly tacky, and completely lived in. All kudos are directed to designers Jason Lauka, Jason Fok, Elivia Bovenzi, Matt Otto and Ian Potter. To someone who hasn't seen the show, this may make it sound like style has overtaken substance, however this is manifestly not the case.

With a cast as strong as this, actor and aesthetic match each other point for point. Carey Van Driest is a triumphant Beatrice. Her command of the language is superb, and her eventual descent into reluctant vulnerability is at once heart-rending and fascinating to watch. Her patter with Devin Haqq’s thoroughly excellent Benedick is endlessly entertaining. Haqq lends qualities to Benedick that feel at once uncommon, yet correct. Your average Benedick tends to lean towards a more sprightly default, with a stage presence as nimble as his banter. Haqq’s performance, however, is robust and grounded, feeling less of a fencer, more of a gentleman boxer. Dignified, yet ready to trade blows or quips at a moments notice. It feels fresh, yet familiar, as do the other performances on display.

Christopher Randolph has a charming patricianly presence as Leonato, with just a dash of goofy technophile dad thrown in for good measure. Amanda Barron lends rich, pristine life to the easily overlooked role of Antonia. RJ Foster’s Don Pedro exudes jovial dignity. Hero, as played by Kim Krane, is a paragon of awkward young-adult virtue. Cory O’Brien-Pniewski is able to make Claudio’s often schizophrenic journey through the play feel rational. No small feat. Deanna Supplee is pleasantly villainish as villainess Borachio. And Sam Leichter’s dual turn as Don John and Dogberry allows him to play, with equal expertise, reprehensible yet sympathetic villainy, and broad, laugh out loud comedy.

Thematically, the play is as it ever was. It’s modernized look and vibrant feel allows it to shed light on the internet age, and the rise of “fake news”. That said, it is a gentle, un-intimidating satire. The light social commentary on display is interesting, and will likely spur some conversation on the Subway ride home. However, the feeling that many will take away from this iteration of Much Ado is just how alive it feels. It is a hilariously funny, visually striking and unrelentingly compelling rendition of the Shakespearean blockbuster. The cast being what they are, if you were to strip away all of its glitz and glam, it would still excel. With glitz and glam left intact, it’s one of best damn good times you’re likely to have Off-Broadway right now.

Much Ado About Nothing Runs at Urban Stages Until March 5th. 
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This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays a mean lead guitar. He has been referred to as the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

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