It’s the Heart, Not the Funnybone, in APT’s ‘Much Ado’

It’s the Heart, Not the Funnybone, in APT’s ‘Much Ado’
For all their wit and bluster, Daniel's Benedick and Madden's Beatrice are scared to death of falling in love—and of being alone.

You can tell an awful lot about a couple’s relationship just by watching their facial expressions and body language when they interact with one another. Those little tells prove one of the most entertaining aspects of watching Colleen Madden’s Beatrice joust with David Daniel’s Benedick in American Players Theatre‘s production of Much Ado About Nothing (playing up the hill through October 5).

Most of us are familiar with the particulars of the war of wits and words between these two classic Shakespearian characters—he dubs her Lady Disdain and Lady Tongue, she zings him by calling him a dull fool and the prince’s jester, and they bicker and banter until the other characters in the play manipulate them into falling in love. Give Madden and Daniel major credit for capturing the nuances of two people simultaneously scared to death of being forever alone and actually giving their heart to someone else. He wears his wit like a literal suit of armor. She laughs away anything uncomfortable, like swiping at an annoying mosquito.

But the real devil is in the details: It’s in the tight-lipped smile Madden strains to hold after Daniel darts away from their conversation. It’s in the extra heartbeat or two each allows to hang in the air as they look away uncomfortably toward the audience after an acid-tipped insult or unexpected tender line. It’s in the real heat and anger each puts into their verbal attacks once they’ve been wounded. There’s a depth here that isn’t always present in more frothy productions of Much Ado. Director David Frank’s gone for the heart and mind, not the funny bone, and that’s a daring and interesting choice.

But it does have consequences. Madden and Daniel’s grasp of their characters and the complex relationship between them makes the other plot-driven aspects of the play seem somewhat pale and pointless by comparison. It’s easy to feel less concerned about Hero (Kelsey Brennan) being slandered by a hoodwinked Don Pedro (Jeb Burris) and Claudio (Nate Burger)…except, perhaps to idly wonder at the eternal question of why her father, Duke Leonato (Brian Mani, on familiar ground) and her intended husband so easily believe the worst of her—and how quickly she forgives the both of them when the plot’s revealed.  

As they cavort around Robert Morgan’s greenery-laden set, Frank’s cast nails the comedy in the play’s two signature scenes. Daniels gets to use a little extra physical comedy to amplify his befuddlement at the thought that Beatrice might be in love with him, while Madden just ends up with a face full of ivy.    

Other performances vacillate. Don John was never one of the Bard’s juiciest villains—in fact, he’s one of the blandest and most ephemeral—and Eric Parks doesn’t do much to elevate him. Don John’s henchmen have a much more entertaining time of it. As the boastful Borachio, Marcus Truschinski’s boyish face is an amusing contrast to his rough demeanor and Motley Crue-esque wig.

As Leonato’s brother Antonio, Paul Bentzen nearly pops a vein busting chop on Don Pedro and Claudio—it’s like a hilarious impromptu episode of When Aged Gentlemen Attack! James Pickering’s malaprop-ridden Deputy Dogberry adds a human element to a walking caricature—he really does seem wounded to be writ down an ass.

Eventually, of course, everyone’s maneuvered to domestic bliss or justice, and all seems right in the world—for that moment, at least. Madden and Daniel’s performances make me wish, for possibly the first time ever, that Shakespeare had somehow scribbled a sequel. Theirs is a relationship that’d be fascinating to watch unfurl.