Shakespeare knew a good thing when he wrote it. Like popular authors of today, or any day, he returned to his most successful themes. "Romeo and Juliet" was first published in 1597; "Much Ado About Nothing" three years later. Their similarities are no coincidence.
As directed by three-time Tony winner Jack O'Brien, the free Central Park "Much Ado" reminds us that comedy/tragedy, love/hate, are allies in opposition. The balance is so precarious that even a stellar cast -- led by Lily Rabe as Beatrice, Hamish Linklater as Benedick, Ismenia Mendes as Hero and Jack Cutmore-Scott as Claudio -- at times over- or underplay the spirit of the poet's line: "When the fun is fastest the sorrow must be saddest."
Perhaps rain dampened the interplay of melancholy and mirth in Thursday's preview. But once the actors embraced circumstances beyond their control, "Much Ado" became about something, indeed.
The title alludes to the slander of a bride's reputation delivered at the altar. Hero, daughter of the governor of Messina -- affectionately ferocious as played by John Glover -- faints as Claudio, the groom, impugns her virtue. As in "Romeo and Juliet," a friar proposes a scheme in which the girl feigns death. But in this parallel literary universe the music plays on, thanks to composer David Yazbek and Nathan Koci's wandering minstrels. Resplendent in 19th century military garb (costumes by Jane Greenwood), Brian Stokes Mitchell's prince matches fellow soldier Benedick to Beatrice, robustly promoting matrimony in song while his bastard brother (Pedro Pascal of HBO's "Game of Thrones") plots to subvert the Hero-Claudio nuptials.
Though theirs is essentially a subplot, Shakespeare intended the Beatrice-vs.-Benedick love bout to take center stage. Linklater's Benedick, as the script requires, doth protest too much against marriage, but doth so with a transparency discernible to all but himself. Rabe's Beatrice mocks Benedick with a focused wit that could only be inflamed by chemistry. On this night, a rain delay enhanced their mutual vulnerability as both are stage-directed to sit on drenched surfaces -- drawing hearty, we're-all-in-this-together laughs.
John Lee Beatty's orchard-estate set frames Belvedere Castle as a skyline for the Italian city, while Jeff Croiter's lighting takes us from day to dreamy night.
Romeo and Juliet should only have lived so long.
WHAT “Much Ado About Nothing,” a Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park production
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. through July 6, (no shows Tuesday, July 4 or Mondays), Delacorte Theater, Central Park
TICKETS Free: box office at noon, day of show, or by lottery; publictheater.org