Flowers wilt. Chocolates molder. Card stock yellows. Shakespeare knew—in his comedies and tragedies both—how abruptly even the purest love can sour into jealousy, hate, indifference. And yet, in the late plays particularly, he also shows how miracles renew love. But in Much Ado About Nothing, a prickly comedy of 1598 that a contemporary rightly described as “most excellent,” it doesn’t take any magic to turn abhorrence to its opposite. Just scheming, love letters, gossip, and, in the current Theatre for a New Audience revival, a splendid performance by the dishy Jonathan Cake.
Cake plays Benedick, a gentleman soldier recently returned from a successful skirmish in Don Pedro’s army. Some years ago, he and Beatrice (Maggie Siff) attempted amours, but that former passion has since curdled into a teasing dislike, “a skirmish of wit.” Beatrice announces herself an enemy to all ardor; Benedick declares he would prefer anything to marriage. But everyone around them, including the rather dull young lovers Hero (Michelle Beck) and Claudio (Matthew Amendt), conspires to match them. And happily the trick succeeds.
Much Ado is a play that reminds us how little we know our own hearts—let alone anyone else’s. It is a comedy that keeps threatening to slide into tragedy. (Harold Bloom called it “nihilistic.”) Only chance occurrences (an overheard word, a discovered letter) ransom laughter from tears. Arin Arbus, who directed a Taming of the Shrew last year that also starred Siff, doesn’t have a natural ear for the funny stuff, and she can’t make the dreary subplots catch fire. But she delivers brisk and lucid productions and often shows, as here, a terrific instinct for casting.
Siff is fine and clever, though perhaps a rather more brittle Beatrice than the text suggests. Yet if you saw her in last year’s show, you can relish knowing that here, at least, is one shrew left contentedly untamed. The play never censures her spirit, and even when she and Benedick acknowledge their affection, the quips keep coming. “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” says Benedick.
And, oh, what a Benedick! For those who have seen Cake only in more serious roles, such as Jason in Medea, this warm and generous turn will come as a revelation and delight. Even beneath a bushy beard, he is a remarkably mobile and expressive actor, conveying Shakespeare’s lightning-fast alterations of thought and emotion without hardly seeming to try. He can make even the most obscure joke seem intelligible. His realization that his only love springs from his only hate is a moment to be treasured. With Cake like this, who needs icing?