Tuesday, September 29, 2020



Kathleen Widdoes, Sam Waterston.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING [Dramatic Revival] A: William Shakespeare; D: A.J. Antoon; S Ming Cho Lee; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Martin Aronstein; M: Peter Link; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Delacorte Theater (OB); 8/16/72-9/3/72 (20); Winter Garden Theatre; 11/11/72-2/11/73 (136)

Mark Hammer, April Shawhan, Bette Heinritze, Kathleen Widdoes, Glenn Walken, Sam Waterston. 

Clearly one of the most popular Shakespearean revivals of the period, A.J. Antoon’s staging of Much Ado about Nothing was moved to Broadway over a year after its Central Park premiere and might have run indefinitely had not the sale of tickets declined following a nationally televised broadcast of the show. The story is told in detail in Kenneth Turan and Joseph Papp’s Free for All, a must read about Joe Papp’s legacy at the Public, which offers other fascinating sidelights on the show as well.

Kathleen Widdoes, April Shawhan, Tom McDermott, Sam Waterston, Glenn Walken.

This was Shakespeare gussied up and revivified through the oft-used, infrequently successful, method of transposing the action to a later historical period more familiar to a modern audience than whatever the playwright provided. Instead of 16th-century Messina, Italy, Antoon chose a turn-of-the-20th-century Southwestern American background. The sets and costumes, directorial devices, and music were, for the most part, ingeniously integrated into an unusually effective romantic comedy that most critics adored.

A gaily bedecked oompah-pah brass band greeted the entering audience and, throughout the show, provided a considerable number of selections devised by Peter Link to suggest pre-World War I American music. Scott Joplin ragtime tunes were conspicuous as well. Dance numbers, including a cakewalk set to Shakespeare’s “Sigh no more, ladies,” were staged by Donald Saddler. There were straw boaters aplenty, men in celluloid collars, striped blazers, and spats. A noisy Stanley Steamer made an appearance, women secretly stole puffs from cigarettes, Barnard Hughes’s hilarious Dogberry led a bunch of Keystone-cop constabularies, phonographs with huge horns spouted music, draft beer foamed, gazebos captured the period look, and so on.

Barnard Hughes, Will Mackenzie.

Ming Cho Lee’s white set, described by Clive Barnes as “a lovely wooden construction of complex terraces, platforms, catwalks, and alcoves” backed by “huge, pop-art panels emblazoned with pictures of” contemporary figures and newspaper clippings, was an eye-filler, as were Theoni V. Aldredge’s “sparkling yet unexaggerated costumes,” as John Simon noted.

Much Ado was directed with such “verve and extravagance,” said Brendan Gill, with actors who were so able to make their words comprehensible and totally believable within the context, that Barnes believed he would remember this production “with affection” as long as he lived. Representative of the critical response was Edwin Wilson’s remark: “The mood of the period seems to fit that of the play exceptionally well: the far-away perspective of the nineties allows us to view the troubles of the young lovers with just the right mixture of detachment, nostalgia and affection.”

There were very few dissident voices, among them the usual maverick, John Simon, for whom Antoon’s interpretation missed entirely the substance of the play’s meanings. He felt the apple pie locale was wrong, for in this “indolent, Never-Never-Land . . . intrigue has no teeth at all,” and the characters seem to be unsuited to the language of their roles. Simon also was far less happy with the casting than most of his compeers.

Sam Waterston, Douglass Watson.

Sam Waterston received kudos for his Benedick, a soldier just returned from the Spanish American War, as did Kathleen Widdoes as Beatrice. “Both performers underplay their roles,” wrote Henry Hewes, “and give us a charming shyness and a capacity to be fooled that are all the greater because these two have been letting their heads too much rule their hearts.” The Don Pedro of Douglass Watson was exceptional, “sensitive, strong and wonderful,” insisted Martin Gottfried. Others in the company included April Shawhan as Hero and Glenn Walken as Claudio.

Company of Much Ado about Nothing.

The revival reaped much attention from the award givers. Tony nominations went to Barnard Hughes, Best Supporting Actor, Play; Kathleen Widdoes, Best Actress, Play; A.J. Antoon, Best Director, Play; Martin Aronstein, Best Lighting Designer; and Peter Link, Best Score. Drama Desk Awards were given to Sam Waterston, Douglass Watson, and Theoni V. Aldredge (shared with her work on Hamlet). Waterston also landed an OBIE for Distinguished Performance.