Shrieks or Laughter

Two kinds of Shakespeare acting slug it out, with the leads fighting on both sides at once

Anna Russell used to explain that there were two types of Spanish song, which she called Spanish Polite and Spanish Rude. On the same basis, I would maintain that there are only two types of Shakespearean acting, the Overwrought and the Sensible. This division has nothing to do with whether actors work rationally or emotionally, building from within, Method-style, or purely from externals: What matters is whether they make sense to you as the character saying the lines, as a result of which the lines make sense—for Shakespeare always makes sense, even when his characters are talking deliberate nonsense. This great quality of his is lost on people—including far too many theater people—who think that, being Shakespeare, he shouldn't have to make sense. These misguided souls, for whom all poetry is one hazy generalization, invariably end up in the Overwrought category when playing Shakespeare.

The Public Theater's free Shakespeare productions in Central Park have always been the battleground for a silent war between the Overwrought and Sensible schools, because the two embody different attitudes toward the presumably plebeian (i.e., nonpaying) audience—two opposing ideas of populism. The Sensible school holds that the audience is there to enjoy Shakespeare precisely because of the quality that makes him universal: He is the dramatic poet everybody can understand. There are complex words and feelings in Shakespeare, but very few complex narrative twists, at least until the loopier romantic tales of his late period. The Overwrought school, of course, viewing the poet as sublime, naturally assumes that such sublimity is beyond the groundlings' comprehension; they must be told, preferably with increased volume and fervor, when the language turns poetic, and with even louder volume matched by increasingly gross physicality when it is supposed to be funny.

In the old days, the Sensible school, like the Tudor monarchs, held uneasy sway. There were encroachments and upheavals, especially during the low-comic subplots, but most actors then were trained for the stage instead of the electronic media, and there was a sort of amicable truce between the two schools that kept them in balance. The excesses of the Overwrought seemed less of a stylistic breach; their frenzies even offered a touch of excitement that kept the Sensibles lively. These days, with no general agreement on standards and the world fixated on media irrelevant to the theater, everything is more random: The Overwrought, if they don't exactly prevail, do tend to outnumber their commonsense opponents, albeit in a patchy and uncertain way.

Johnston and Smits: Divided loyalties
photo: Michal Daniel
Johnston and Smits: Divided loyalties

David Esbjornson's production of Much Ado About Nothing, in this context, is like a war in which all the commanders have divided loyalties. Having worked with Esbjornson, I know him for a Sensible fellow, who prefers that his actors understand the meaning and relative weight of every line they say. And yet his Much Ado feels much like other recent Delacorte productions staged by artists with quite different directorial personalities, full of unexpected lurches into vehemence, swaggering, and pointlessly high decibel levels—out of which it lurches again, just as quickly, into taut, straightforward, plainspoken scenes that immediately tell you David Esbjornson has been at work. Jimmy Smits, who plays Benedick, is the principal offender in the Overwrought department, yet even he, from the climactic church scene (where the play turns serious) onward, is as abashed and lucid of speech as any Benedick you could wish for. Even the merriment to which he rises in the last scenes is a considerable improvement over his first two acts, where Benedick—whose witticisms are supposed to be the delight of a set of gallant, aristocratic officers—comes off as a shrieking buffoon who could make the Ritz Brothers look genteel.

At least for those opening scenes, he gets the Beatrice he deserves, with Kristen Johnston playing so hard, vindictive, and shrill that their encounters suggest the simultaneous taming of a shrew and a swine, rather than Shakespeare's rapid exchange of verbal darts by two people who, in their defensiveness, simply find it easier to be sharp than to be tender. But Johnston, who has a stronger innate comic sense than Smits, is quicker at grounding her comedy in the heart; she lapses into shrieking less often, and varies them with mottled, introspective colors that suggest Beatrice is a real person to whom something actual is happening. Esbjornson hasn't helped either of them with the heavy crudity of the back-to-back eavesdropping scenes, in which the tart-tongued pair is gulled into believing they are each other's love object. Some physical foolery is mandatory here, but when a Beckettian like Esbjornson tries for physical fun, what comes out is grim: Smits's Benedick, when he hears that Beatrice loves him, falls into a well, which in reality would end the story right there, with Benedick's corpse. And Much Ado, which already has a fake death and a mock funeral, doesn't need any extra corpses.

You never know where the plague of overemphasis will crop up: Sam Waterston, of all usually reliable actors, makes his jovial welcome to the troops sound as infuriated as his wrath after his daughter's humiliation. On the Sensible side, Peter Francis James's quietly pensive Don Pedro is a walking rebuke to the shriekers, and Lorenzo Pisoni's sincere, gracious Claudio is exactly what's needed. So, less expectably in a classical context, is Dominic Chianese's feisty Antonio. Imagining Brian Murray as a numskull is hard, but he makes clear exactly what sort of numskull Dogberry is being at each moment. Watch his face light up when Leonato calls him "tedious," and you learn more of what Shakespeare is about than in all the posturing and shouting of the first half.

 
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