by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
The New York Shakespeare Festival
Presented in Central Park by The Public Theatre
Reviewed August 1, 2004 by Margaret Croyden

Free Shakespeare in the park has been a long tradition. Established more than thirty years ago by that dynamo Joe Papp, (now deceased), the performances have always been a delightful event. People stand on line for hours to procure tickets, some bring their picnic baskets and dine on the grass before a performance, others munch their ice cream and mull around. It is truly a New York event catering to all kinds of people--young old, black, brown, white and every gender and cross dresser imaginable. What accounts for the success of this long time tradition? What brings stars like Sam Waterston, Jimmy Smits, Brian Murray, Liev Schreiber and years ago Meryl Streep, to play under the hot lights (and sometimes in the rain) for very little money?

One answer is that it is fun. Another is the hunger for actors and audience to experience Shakespeare, no matter what. That it is free and under the stars and sometimes under a full moon hold out many possibilities, regardless of who or what is on that stage. And this presents a problem. Though audiences still flock to the free Shakespeare, and though it still remains a big attraction, one wonders why many directors working for Shakespeare in the Park find it necessary to change aspects of the Shakespeare text--a practice known as upgrading.

The trend to upgrade began in the early sixties when Joe Papp held the reign tightly on all things at the Public Theater. The sixties were a tumultuous time: the demonstrations against the Viet War, the rise of the feminist movement, the civil rights struggles, the young shutting down universities and colleges; political correctness was on the rise. Joe Papp believed he needed to accommodate himself to the rising temperature of the times, and in so doing set a precedent that has been followed ever since. Under the current leadership of George C. Wolfe, the philosophical, political, and artistic tradition has been retained. Political correctness had long ago overtaken any notion of classicism. Today all kinds of actors regardless of race, color, gender can play any part the director deems valid; all kinds of accents may be used, all kinds of cross dressing is permissible, all kinds of interpretations are acceptable, so that often it is hard to recognize the original Shakespeare text. The precedent of unconventional casting, acting, and scenery had been put in place long ago and maintained to this day.

Is this a good idea or a bad one? Maybe it is both. One deciding factor is the desire to attract and satisfy youthful audiences. Youth today rules the roost; youth is feared, youth sets the standards of dress, speech and social discourse; youth drives the interests of film , music, and fashion; industries have one object: satisfy the young. That is where the money is, that is the "in" thing to do. And the results?

Looking around the theater during "Much Ado About Nothing," one sees that the majority of the audience is young, unlike Broadway, where the bulk of the audiences is middle age or old. So to capture and maintain the interests of the young, even Shakespeare has had to be changed--upgraded with contemporary allusions and cast with TV personalities (regardless of experience or ability). Clearly, TV actors have invaded the New York theatrical world. In "Much Ado," the scenery is changed to a town in Spain, the costumes follow suit, the music and lyrics--not Shakespeare's-- are added and Jimmy Smits of TV plays Benedict, while Kristen Johnston, also of TV, plays Beatrice, not to speak of Sam Waterston who is cast as Hero's father while his real life daughter, Elizabeth Waterston, plays Hero. Not that all of this bad. It is just mediocre. But it seems to be acceptable to audiences and critics alike. Nothing of the beauty of the play comes through; there are no shining performances, no lyrical language, no aristocratic bearings; just a collection of middle class people engaged in some nonsensical inelegant and charmless repartee. Beatrice, as performed by Ms. Johnston, is an ordinary middle class shrew, who sounds as if she were using a bull horn at a mass meeting (so much for the use of mikes) and this Benedict, who has several funny moments, lacks the necessary elan and sophistication of the character; instead he is something of a buffoon. So in the end we are robbed of the underlying meaning of the play, and its beautiful, witty poetry: all we see is the petty problems of middle class life. And all of this makes the whole enterprise benign and forgettable.

Should we boycott the production because it has been diminished of any kind of translucent power? Should we boycott it if actors deliver the poetry as if it were prose? Should we boycott it because it has been stripped of its depth and reduced to a simple minded soap opera? Apparently none of this makes any difference to the public. The house is full every night. Should I go along with this trend and praise it. I don't think so. I appreciate that this park event still gives people pleasure, but I wonder if we are doing audiences an injustice? They have no way of judging or experiencing the greatness of Shakespeare or appreciating the real complexities of his plays. Is this what we really want? [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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