Saturday, April 11, 2009

Much Ado About Nothing - If I Were Stu, Part Two

Randall and Gil write:

Would-be Stus,

Another issue. After Much Ado’s dose of Dogberry, we miss Bottom. We miss Costard, Silvius and Nym. Hell, we even miss Launce.

These rustic characters can be the most, as Leonato might say and as he does of Dogberry, tedious in all of Shakespeare's works. Really, Dogberry only has one good line ("Oh, that he were here to write me down an ass"), and he repeats it three times. When we think of these rustics, it is not their wit that we enjoy, but their lack of it. So, it's not helpful to rely on Shakespeare to pull some of their more difficult scenes through for an audience. Instead, the success of a Dogberry or Silvius or Launce or Nym or Launcelot Gobbo relies heavily on the comic talent of the actor portraying him.

Bad actors, for example, tend to run to thudding farce, which is anti-wit. Farce, as we know, is best when it is understated. Even then the best rustics we’ve seen have been given a little something extra to work with by the director. In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Launce’s dog, Crab, is often a toy attached to a stiff leash as opposed to a live dog, and so becomes a comic device. In Joe Dowling’s production at the Guthrie, Jim Lichtscheidl played Launce as a Rodney Dangerfield-like character, and the “I don’t get no respect” attitude was wonderful, bringing out the qualities of his set pieces like the one about the catalog of his girlfriend’s attributes. Gil saw a production of Two Gentlemen at the Boulder Shakespeare Festival in which, when the audience was restive during Launce’s misogynistic screed, the actor turned on them and said “I didn’t write this stuff.” Lichtscheidl did the same thing at the Guthrie, turning to the audience after a confused noise had interrupted him and explaining, “Hey, it’s Shakespeare.” Is it a surprise that actors given rustic roles seem to feel freer to drop character and ad-lib?

But Dogberry is a challenge. When Michael Keaton played him in Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, he tried to invigorate the character by reprising his Beetlejuice slovenliness. It made him more tedious.

What to do with Dogberry? Really, tediousness is not funny, but Dogberry’s, his over-estimation of himself, is crucial to the delay of exploding the Boracchio plot, because he lacks sufficient common sense to perform his office effectively. So he needs a naïve dignity, more innocence than bluster. His dim intelligence is not the contrast to Beatrice and Benedick’s wit in this carefully structured comedy. That is found in the shallow, conventional Claudio and the dignified, yet nearly silent Hero. Dogberry offers a different comic texture, separate from the social wit of the other characters. It’s like having both Kevin Kline and the comic who yells “Git ‘er done” (Larry the Cable Guy) in the same film.

So, does one abate the tediousness through comic device, giving Dogberry some hilarious prop? Or by adding some terrific character trait, like a stutter or an inability to find the right (or wrong) word or persistent flatulence? Or by linking his comic nature to a modern parallel, so the audience is provided with a different, accompanying kind of gag when he’s on stage? (And who are the rustics of our time? Are they Sandler, Carrey, and Ferrell? Is it George W. Bush? Was Bush channeling his inner Dogberry when he said "You're working hard to put food on your family"?) Or do you go for the surreal, outfitting Dogberry with a mountain-climber's pickaxe buried in his skull and which no one ever comments on? At least it would explain his difficulty with language.

Good luck, Stu.

Randall and Gilbert

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