Hibernian Hall is one of those grand historic buildings in Boston that government and private groups have been trying to reclaim over the years. Gentrify, if you will. A century ago it was the center for Irish social and cultural events in and around Roxbury, and then the Irish moved and took their events with them. The building fell into disrepair, as did the rest of the neighborhood. In politically correct terms, the area became economically disadvantaged.
Property values being what they were, it wasn’t too long before well-intentioned white people came in and tried to reclaim parts of the city. My personal favorite improvement to this particular neighborhood is the addition of ‘End of School Zone’ signage around the perimeter of the schools so drug dealers know where the line between their free trade being a misdemeanor or a felony is drawn.
The refurbished Hibernian Hall currently serves as the home to Arts, Culture and Trade Roxbury (ACT Roxbury) and the Actors’ Shakespeare Project, the latter of which is closing its fifth season with a production of Much Ado About Nothing.
Hibernian Hall is also two blocks down from where a 15 year-old was killed by a bullet to the head a couple of weeks ago and around the corner from where a 16 year-old shot up a liquor store a week later. I mention this only because it is not easy to enjoy a play when you are worried about your car, let alone your life.
Fortunately most of director/designer Benjamin Evett’s production allows you to forget the gauntlet of hookers, drug dealers, gunsels and folks just hanging around, but it’s no easy task.
Set in the round, with a few chairs and tables suggesting a wedding reception or other hired assembly for dressing, Evett takes full advantage of the hall’s dance floor and history. Unfortunately, because the production is staged in the round, much of the blocking seems more motivated by keeping sightlines open rather than anything that is actually happening in the scene. This does not affect most of the cast, as they seem bent on aping and cloying their way through the production rather than creating characters, but it does become a distraction when you’re trying to enjoy the performances of a few of the more talented cast members.
Evett, who is also the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s Artistic Director and Founder, seems to have set the production in the days directly following World War II, although it’s never made clear. Some of the men wear vague military dress whites and the rest are in tuxedos or suits. The women are limited to one dress each, flowered or black formal. The overall affect of the costumes is adequate but uninspired.
As if taking his cue from the costumes, Jason Ries' lighting design is also functional but again, uninspired and even clumsy when he tries to create an ill-advised game show effect at the end of Act Five. The sound is a nice mix of David Oluwadara’s live trumpet and recorded backing tracks, marred only by the occasional speaker drop out symptomatic of poorly maintained equipment.
The ethos for the designers is, for the most part, at the mercy of the director, and as director, Evett seems at times to have lost his way. The tone of the play is all over the place, with halfhearted attempts at sorrow sandwiched between broad, ill-timed slapstick.
Dogberry and the Watch’s scenes are a nice bit of comic relief in the script, but Evett has reduced them to something akin to a hammy improv troupe. ‘Ok, ok, ok: we’re in a street, right? And we’re cops, and I’m really dumb and you’re deaf and you speak with a stutter, ok? Go!’
Evett has Claudio mourn Hero by reading his lines off of what might as well have been a Hallmark card and then playing ‘Unforgettable’ on the sax. Perhaps it was meant to be soulful and heartfelt, but Evett doesn’t have the sax playing chops to pull it off and it becomes the kind of uncomfortable musical interlude that is normally reserved for middle school band recitals.
For reasons known only to Evett, Hero, too, takes her spin as the next American Idol and breaks into song, presumably for our entertainment, but motivated by nothing else in the production, it hangs like an appendage to the play.
In a nice twist, Benedict, having been called the Prince’s jester by Beatrice, delivers a monologue in the style of Catskills comic, but the moment is ruined by the interjection of modern patter and audience banter (‘Hey, how ya doing? Where you from?’) before the speech. Richard Snee is a capable enough actor to have pulled off the speech as a nightclub routine without having to lean on that crutch. Time and time again in this production it's as if Evett doesn’t trust Shakespeare’s words to convey the emotion or the humor of a scene, and thus he has his actors out-Herod Herod.
Evett does go with some very creative doubling of the cast, but unfortunately the cast seems well outside their wheelhouses. While they all seem more than capable of creating one solid character, their secondary characters (particularly in the case of Michael Forden Walker who plays Borachio, Ursula, Friar Francis and the Messengerr) are nothing but sloppy, half imagined impressions of people. Steinbach does do some surprisingly good scat singing of ‘Hey Nonny Nonny (traditionally sung by Balthasar, who is absent in this production), but Walker‘s Ursula, Kuntz’s Verges and Lookwood’s Dogberry are just sad.
That sort of faithless acting is bad enough in minor characters, but when the same can be said for your Claudio and Hero, played by Sheldon Best and Kami Rushell Smith, respectively, your production is in trouble. Both seem to hail from the ‘indicate rather than act’ school—rubbing their bellies when they say they are hungry and holding up clenched fists to let us know they are angry—never once losing themselves, although losing us in the process.
While Hero heaves her chest and pats dry tears when she is wrongly called out for being a whore, Paula Plum as Beatrice weeps over her cousin’s loss. Plum achieves a truly touching moment and a fine piece of acting that suffers by comparison to that of Sheldon Best. Why is Beatrice so upset about something that happened to Hero when Hero seems to only be putting on a show of grief?
Much Ado About Nothing is really Beatrice and Benedick’s play and Paula Plum and Richard Snee are able to elevate themselves above a weak supporting cast and some suspect direction, ringing in a couple of funny and endearing performances. But is this Much Ado worth risking a hail of gunfire on the streets of Roxbury? Whatever you do, don’t say I told you so.