Governor Leonato’s estate in Sicily is a serious rumor farm with a whole lot of nothing going on. Actually, make that a whole lot of “noting” in the Elizabethan sense, meaning watching and overhearing; Shakespeare spins that double meaning in his title and throughout Much Ado About Nothing. In Jack O’Brien’s Public Theater production at Central Park’s Delacorte, would-be lovers constantly eavesdrop to learn who might fancy or betray them. They hide in hedges, peek through orange groves, and crouch behind shooting stalks in the garden, hoping to learn the truth behind appearances.
You might wonder why anyone in the sun-baked province of Messina would confide a secret, much less bear his or her heart, when every tree and trellis seems to have ears. Leonato’s household thrives on endless “ado”; its sharp-witted residents dine on hearsay and innuendo, and they deal with suspicions by cooking up elaborate ruses, disguises, and tests. Chalk up their foibles to the lush fertility of Sicily. It’s in the air. Set designer John Lee Beatty underscores this possibility by situating the action around a lovely villa’s terrace, with big facing windows, swaying palms, and a vegetable patch where beautiful Italian things sprout.
This straightforward production doesn’t set out to rock anyone’s aesthetics, and it doesn’t need to: It offers a perfectly pleasant summer romp in the Delacorte’s open-air amphitheater. As Benedick and Beatrice, caustic rivals tricked into declaring their mutual affection, Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe make a surprisingly wholesome duo. Rabe, a Shakespeare in the Park veteran, brings her husky voice and a world-weary front that melts into tenderness when Beatrice realizes she holds the key to Benedick’s heart. Linklater gives Benedick an air of mirthful youth; we watch this bearded bachelor drop his defensive jocularity when he, in turn, discovers he’s “horribly in love.” His railing against marriage in the comedy’s first half turns out to have been a single guy’s mask of pride.
The supporting cast has stronger and weaker players, and you sometimes wish everyone would just embrace the effluence of Shakespeare’s text rather than handling it as American naturalism with ostensibly spontaneous pauses and stutters. (The over-miked sound system might be more hindrance than aid to verbal expression.) As Dogberry, the malaprop-prone local constable, John Pankow succeeds utterly with the character’s feisty officiousness but throws away many of his comically misfiring words. On the other hand, Ismenia Mendes and Jack Cutmore-Scott navigate Hero and Claudio’s confused dead-and-alive courtship with linguistic forthrightness, not to mention good looks and sturdy bearing.
The evening has potent tonics: Jane Greenwood’s gorgeous rustic masquerade costumes help us see Shakespeare’s romancing as a series of raised and lowered masks. And there’s music, sweet music: Balthasar (Steel Burkhardt) sings a charming basso profundo ode to deception with Don Pedro (Brian Stokes Mitchell), and courtiers with accordion, guitar, and strings serenade from the balcony at just the right moments, smoothing over lovers’ abrupt changes of heart. Not that it’s hard to go with the flow. Much Ado may be Shakespeare’s great comedy of romantic reversals, but when you’re sitting under June skies at the Delacorte, even the craziest love-struck “nothing” feels entirely in place.