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Two Tales of the Green-Eyed Monster
Much Ado About Nothing and Grand Magic at Stratford
Allison Edwards-Crewe as Hero, Austin Eckert as Claudio, Patrick McManus as Leonato and Akosua Amo-Adem as Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing at the Stratford Festival.
Photo by David Hou.
Two of our favorite shows this season at Stratford were the production of Much Ado About Nothing on the Festival stage directed by Chris Abraham and Grand Magic presented on the Tom Patterson stage directed by Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. The former, a Shakespearean crowd-pleaser, is a play I’ve seen more times than I could count; the latter, a mid-century Italian psycho-philosophical speculation by Eduardo de Filippo, is a play I’d not only never seen but never heard of. After seeing both, they wound up speaking to each other rather intimately in my mind, because both revolve around the same central problem of male jealousy, and the Italian play—which I saw first—wound up undermining the novel efforts Abraham made, in collaboration with playwright Erin Shields, to solve the problem many modern audiences have with Shakespeare’s comedy.
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Before I get to those problems, I’ll say a few words about why this Much Ado was so wonderful. It starts with the leads, Maev Beatty as Beatrice and Graham Abbey as Benedick, who have phenomenal chemistry on stage and wonderful talent as physical comedians. Beatty plays Beatrice as transparently in love with Benedick from the start, having been hurt by him before. That’s amply warranted by the text, which tells us directly that she and Benedick have had some kind of past relationship:
PRINCE, ⌜to Beatrice⌝ Come, lady, come, you have lost
the heart of Signior Benedick.
BEATRICE Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile, and I
gave him use for it, a double heart for his single
one. Marry, once before he won it of me with false
dice. Therefore your Grace may well say I have lost
PRINCE You have put him down, lady, you have put
BEATRICE So I would not he should do me, my lord,
lest I should prove the mother of fools.
But it is not always quite so obvious that the fire is still burning underneath an ash-blanket of scorn, nor is Benedick always such a clueless and self-involved goofball as Abbey plays him here, which makes him only more lovable even as he is more deserving than usual of being called a fool and worse names (in this production, not only by Beatrice but by very nearly all the other women in the production). Beatrice more often than not comes off as Benedick’s better, but in this production it never feels like she is settling. She knows him of old, but she also loved him of old, and still does, and we see why, and that makes all the difference.
The entire cast, though, is absolutely on fire, from major roles like Allison Edwards-Crewe’s spirited Hero and Austin Eckert’s achingly sincere Claudo, to supporting roles like Patrick McManus’s transparent Leonato, André Sills’s haughty Don Pedro, and Jakob Ehman’s juvenile bad-boy Borachio, to virtual cameos like Akosua Amo-Adem’s Ursula (whose utter disdain for Benedick almost makes it impossible for her to trick Beatrice into acknowledging her love for him), Gordon Patrick White’s Friar Francis (for once a meddling friar whose schemes actually work) or Cyrus Lane’s Conrade (who briefly steals the show with indignant hopping while bound and gagged). The production as a whole does a marvelous job of marrying broad comedy to deep feeling, and cavalierly breaks the fourth wall to bring the audience in, but without ever undermining our belief in the emotional reality of the dramatic world being created, a trick that any Elizabethan should properly applaud.
There’s one rocky spot in Much Ado, though, on which many productions get wrecked. Claudio and Don Pedro are convinced by Don Pedro’s bad brother, Don John, that Hero, whom he is to wed the next day, has been unfaithful with Borachio, because they see Borachio through a window at night making love to a woman who is supposed to be Hero, but is actually her maid, Margaret. It’s generally absurd that this ruse works, because both Claudio and Don Pedro have every reason to assume Don John’s intentions are malicious; it’s even more absurd in this production, in which Margaret (Déjah Dixon-Green) have wildly different body types. The fact that it does work, and that Claudio responds by not only to breaking off the engagement but doing so publicly, at the wedding, in the most humiliating way possible, is a profound indictment not only of Claudio but even more so of the supposedly sober and mature Don Pedro, who backs him to the hilt. How we are to come back from this catastrophe, and bring the lovers back together for a happy reconciliation and a belated wedding, is the challenge of the latter portion of the play. Shakespeare provides the contrivance of Hero’s faked death and Claudio’s penitent willingness to marry Hero’s unseen cousin in her stead, but between the two lovers themselves all Shakespeare provides is this:
CLAUDIO, ⌜to Hero⌝
Give me your hand before this holy friar.
⌜They take hands.⌝
I am your husband, if you like of me.
And when I lived, I was your other wife,
And when you loved, you were my other husband.
HERO Nothing certainer.
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.
That’s a very narrow bridge to cross to a convincingly happy wedding, and many productions don’t quite manage it, but hurry past to the happier business of getting Beatrice and Benedick hitched.
Abrams isn't the sort of director to skip past a problem like that; instead, he decided that the only way to solve the problem was to re-write Shakespeare, adding an extensive dialogue by Ms. Shields between Hero and Claudio in which she calls him to account for his behavior, and he repents, but then continuing on to ask why it should have made a difference if she had had lovers before him, ultimately bringing Claudio to a point of openness to figuring out how to make love work whatever the details of their respective pasts—or their future changes. At this point Hero finally consents to marry him, and we return to Shakespeare’s own dialogue.
I have no objection to the sentiments of the inserted dialogue. And in the moment, I didn’t think they represented a radical departure in terms of character. Claudio is a bit of an idiot, but his honesty and clarity of feeling has always been manifest. So I can believe that an honest demand that he grow might be met with an honest determination to do so. As for Hero, an earlier bit of text by Shields, a prologue spoken by Beatrice about Hero, helpfully contextualizes her behavior throughout the play as a culturally-constrained (though not, on that account, necessarily resented) performance, which turns this moment of confrontation into the moment that she throws off the mask and reveals a naked self. I can buy that too, on an emotional level.
But the added dialogue stops the play cold. For one thing, it isn’t dramatic. Mike Nichols once described every scene as either a seduction, a negotiation or a fight, and this isn’t really any of these, but rather a careful process of one character leading the other to a place where the audience will accept that forgiveness has been earned. The falsity isn’t so much in the sentiments but in how they are elicited—and, more so, where they go, because this dialogue, if it did happen, would not lead easily back to happy teasing of Beatrice and Benedick, nor to a wedding thereafter. It opens up the expectation of more time needed, and in that sense it doesn’t so much solve the problem of the Hero-Claudio ending as underline it.
There’s yet another problem though, and I didn't quite see it until I had meditated sufficiently on the more recent play, not only set in Italy but written by an actual Italian.
Geraint Wyn Davies (left) as Otto Marvuglia and Gordon S. Miller as Calogero Di Spelta in Grand Magic at the Stratford Festival. Photo by David Hou.
Grand Magic is far less well-known than Much Ado About Nothing, so I’ll have to describe the plot in some detail rather than distinguishing this production from others; suffice it to say that Cimolino knows very well how to use the Patterson stage to best effect. The play opens at a seaside Italian resort where a host of vacationers eagerly anticipate the arrival of a famous illusionist: Otto Marvuglia (Geraint Wyn Davies, in a part perfectly suited to his hammy talents). Marvuglia is not only a master of sleight of hand; he has far deeper arts at his command. One of the guests, Gervasio D’Aloisi (Steve Ross), describes having been hypnotized into believing that he was being pursued and in danger for his life; he spent five years on the run, moving from town to town under different aliases, until, at the snap of Marvuglia’s fingers, he was restored to that very moment at the show where he had first been mesmerized, to learn that those five years were all an illusion of his mind. Another guest, Arturo Taddei (David Collins), testifies to a similarly extraordinary transformation. The crowd is abuzz with anticipation, except for one man, Calogero di Spelta (Gordon S. Miller, doing exceptionally fine work and ultimately dominating the show), who believes himself to be immune from illusion. Di Spelta is a profoundly jealous man who keeps his wife, Marta (Beck Lloyd) under lock and key, but refuses to acknowledge to himself or anyone else that he is, in fact, jealous, instead professing unflappable rationality.
Needless to say, the plot will be all about despoiling Di Spelta of his illusions by means of illusion. Marvuglia arrives, with his wife, Zaira (a sharp Sarah Orenstein), and proves immediately to be a down-on-his-luck mountebank. D’Aloisi and Taddei were both plants, sent to seed the audience’s anticipation with tall tales of Marvuglia’s powers, and this night Marvuglia is not only going to perform his usual illusions but serve as a pander for Marta, who will be “disappeared” for real so that she may meet her clandestine lover—a photographer, Mariano D’Albino (a smooth Jordin Hall), who has paid Marvuglia handsomely for the service. Chosen to enter Marvuglia’s magic sarcophagus, from which she vanishes, Marta sprints down to the water to meet D’Albino, and when he pleads with her to run away with him in his motorboat to Venice, she accepts.
This, of course, leaves Marvuglia with a problem: he has no way to bring the vanished lady back, and he has a jealous husband on his hands increasingly impatient to see her. So Marvuglia dares to do the absurd: he tells Di Spelta that because of his jealousy, Marta has been spirited not down to the water to her lover, but into an ornate box, which Marvuglia hands to him. Di Spelta may open the box at any time and be reunited with his wife—but only if he is absolutely certain of her fidelity. If he has any doubts, and opens the box, he will lose her forever.
The crazy and ultimately brilliant conceit of the play is that Di Spelta believes just enough to be afraid to open the box. It’s a truly inspired metaphor for the inherent contradictions of the jealous lover’s position: he wants her for himself alone, but he can only have her totally in this ersatz form that can’t be looked into too closely, because to know her truly would require a faith that transcends knowledge, without which he can only keep the idea of her fidelity as a kind of invisible talisman that replaces her actual self. Di Spelta is caught in that trap, and so for the rest of the play he is reduced to a madman clutching his magic box, being told by Marvuglia that everything he is experiencing is an illusion, and will continue to be until he opens the box.
He proceeds this way for years. Initially he is frantic, bringing in a brigadier of the police (Emilio Vieira) to seize alienating his family (each of them a piece of work in their own right, only out for their own interests), bewildering his servants, until finally, in extremis, he is prepared to open the box. As luck would have it, right at this point Marvuglia’s wife, Zaira, has located Marta, and brought her back to be reconciled. At the climactic moment, just as Di Spelta is about to open the box, Marvuglia produces Marta—she has returned to him as soon as he found his faith in her, just as was promised.
But Marta won’t play Marvuglia’s game—absurd in any case, since he cannot actually unwind years of aging or magically bring them all back to the moment in the seaside resort when Marta first vanished and Di Spelta was first mesmerized. Instead, Marta enters into a dialogue with her husband that bears some marked similarity to the texture of Shields’s added lines for Hero. She talks about honesty, about how his jealousy ruined her life and his, about how she had another lover and he needs to accept that and see her for who she is, and love her for who she is, and on that basis build a new life together. The circumstances are remarkably similar as well—as Hero was miraculously brought back from the dead (but was actually just sequestered while her slander lived), so Marta has been miraculously freed from the box (but was actually just off with her lover in Venice). Moreover, we’ve had the necessary gap of time, and Di Spelta’s grief and loss have already brought him around to the point of no longer jealously needing to know. If Hero’s added words are supposed to work on Claudio, surely Marta’s will work on Di Spelta.
They don’t work at all, though. Instead, Di Spelta fixates on the fact that he hasn’t opened the box—he was about to do so, but he hadn't quite done so yet—which means that this isn’t really his wife, and we’re still in “the game” or “the experiment” as Marvuglia describes the elaborate illusion in which Di Spelta is supposedly entangled. Like a small child, he clings to his transitional object, ultimately preferring it to a compromised love with a real woman.
It’s not where I expected the play to end up, and that surprise is one of the joys of plays you are completely unfamiliar with. I expected Marvuglia’s trick to work, and the main thing I wondered about was whether Di Spelta would be changed, and invite his wife to join him in Marvuglia’s world of illusion, or whether he would revert to his prior self immediately upon being released from the spell, and lock his wife up again. But the more I thought about it, the clearer it was that this was the only satisfying ending. Marvuglia, after all, is a fraud, and Di Spelta a deeply disturbed man. To cure him by Marvuglia’s means would be to strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief, but of the various possible endings without a cure, this was the one that put its finger most firmly on the pulse of the disease.
What, then, of Hero and Claudio? Inasmuch as their story is a story about jealousy, I don’t think the added text quite finds that pulse. If Claudio were really a jealous man, it wouldn’t work. As it happens, I’m not convinced he is an inherently distrustful and jealous man, convinced others are deceiving him; on the contrary, I think he’s more like Bertram from All’s Well that Ends Well, an insecure, too-trusting and hence easily-led young man. If that is the case, then Hero’s demand (in the added text) that he grow up right quick may indeed elicit an eager affirmation that he will do so. But far from resolving their problems thereby, they’ll be laying the ground work for trouble in the future, when Claudio actually does grow up, and does not grow precisely as instructed.
Personally, I think the solution to the problem of the ending of Much Ado lies elsewhere, in granting Hero the wisdom to see that person who killed her with slander wasn’t Claudio at all, but Don Pedro—not her honest but bone-headed beloved but the older men who should know better but still steered him wrong out of their own vanity. I can believe in a Hero grown suddenly wise from that ordeal, who goes into marriage knowing that she will need to keep a watch not on herself, because of her husband’s jealousy, but on him, because of his naïveté. In the parlance of our time, that’s burdening her with a lot of “emotional labor.” It’s not a feminist ending, for sure. But notwithstanding all the love for spiky Beatrice and her “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace,” Much Ado isn’t a feminist play. The challenge isn’t to make it feminist, but to make it emotionally realistic, to find a way into Hero that grants her wisdom and strength, so that we can believe she made a decision to take Claudio back, and did not meekly follow what daddy and the good friar told her to do.
To that end, if I were to keep one thing from Abraham’s amendment of the scene, it would be this: that he has Hero pull off her veil before Claudio offers to marry her. As written, Claudio’s willingness to wed Hero’s supposed cousin sight unseen is a sign of his submission, and therefore of his penitence. He is willing to trust to fate in the matter of his happiness, so long as he does his duty (and, it cannot be ignored, becomes Leonato’s heir). How can this willingness be a comfort to Hero, though? Particularly if Claudio’s problem from the beginning has been that he is too easily led into error, how does this show any correction? It doesn't, and I think she would properly object, as Edwards-Crewe’s Hero does.
But of course, a preemptive unmasking is Marta’s move in Grand Magic as well. Di Spelta has not yet opened the box when she appears. What would have happened had she, and Marvuglia, waited, as Shakespeare has Hero wait? If Di Spelta had tested his perfect faith, gotten his wife back, as promised, only to find that his faith was false—what then? He could no longer believe the game was still afoot, and Marvuglia did not actually promise that his faith would be vindicated—only that he would get his wife back if he was absolutely confident in her fidelity, and opened the box in that condition. What would he do then, without the option to retreat into illusion?
In the end, it was a kind of kindness on De Filippo’s part that he did not test his jealous protagonist that far—but it is a kindness to him, not to us. His solipsistic ending is truly horrible when seen from the outside. I’m not sure whether Abraham intended kindness toward Hero, toward his audience, or toward himself in amending Shakespeare’s play as he did. But if he takes Shield’s own words seriously, he must believe that the greatest kindness he can do any of us is to tell us the truth.
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