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I've Got Rhythm
Reviewing APT's productions of "American Buffalo" and "Much Ado About Nothing."

When is the last time you just listened to the sound of a play? Not the crashing music from the orchestra pit or the howling sub-woofer special effects, or even the words as they spin out the story. But the music of the language. Playwrights know their words are meant to be spoken aloud, and as such aspire to music, to poetry. But in some plays, the rhythm is the driving force, the main engine that keeps an audience nodding along in time to every iamb, every verbal accelerando. And every. Yes. Pause.

Plays by two great musicians of the stage are part of this season at Spring Green's American Players Theatre. Four centuries divide the career of William Shakespeare and David Mamet, but they each are poets of their own time, and these APT productions show how sound, sense and character can come together magically in the theater.

In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, playing through early October at APT's outdoor stage, there is a bit of actual song and a smidgen of verse (reserved for the more “serious” courtship between Claudio and Hero). But the real music of the play is in the bang-zoom banter of Beatrice and Benedict, authors of one of the most intoxicating love feuds in all of Western literature. Director David Frank certainly gives this “merry war” of words its due, but with actors as talented as David Daniel and Colleen Madden, he can do much more than simply spin out Shakespeare’s furious allegros of invective. There is both sense and melody in the ripostes between Madden and Daniel, and both actors excel in bridging the 400-year linguistic gap between some of Shakespeare’s most elaborate—and obscure—puns.

The world of Much Ado’s Messina is very much a man’s world, driven by military conquest and punctuated by tales of battle. And modern criticism—while acknowledging the powerful wit and resilience of Beatrice—has often focused on the paternalism of the romance between Claudio and Hero, which unravels due to rumors of Hero’s lost virginity. Frank makes no radical gestures to comment on this, but simply creates a world in which the men are both powerful and trivial, military clothes-horses prone to amiable backslapping and cheerful camaraderie (the pristine, 19th-century military uniforms are by Robert Morgan). Fresh-faced Claudio (appealingly played by Nate Burger) is a shy naïf overwhelmed by the lovely specter of a bride like Hero (Kelsey Brennan), and his rejection of her comes off as the act of a slightly spoiled man-child. The curmudgeonly and put-upon Leonato (played with hairpin emotional swings by Brian Mani) seems as rooted in the old world as his substantial mutton-chops, and can only look on with bemused or stricken confusion.

And in the main bout, the woman has the upper hand as well. While Benedick is certainly a verbal match for Beatrice, Daniel plays him with a soft edge, adding a good measure of buffoonery to inform his high opinion of himself. In the famous “gulling” scene, where Benedick “overhears” that Beatrice is actually in love with him, Frank and Daniel incorporate a good measure of crowd-pleasing slapstick. By contrast, Madden’s Beatrice is hard as nails. When the back-and-forth insults are flying, Beatrice is cool, confident and matter-of-fact, while Benedick looks to the audience or his mates for validation after every retort.

Frank’s approach elides some of the darkness that hovers over other productions, but it doesn’t lack in substance. In his program notes, he cites Harold Bloom’s comment, “with every exchange between the fencing lovers, the abyss glitters.” Whether that abyss is populated by amiable fools like the dimwitted Constable Dogberry (played with malapropic glee by James Pickering), or the empty ceremony of military glad-handing, there is a sense here that Beatrice and Benedick have found a bit of wreckage to cling to. And we’re rooting for them all the way.

Despite David Mamet’s reputation as a playwright fond of rat-a-tat rhythms, there's not a lot of music in the first minutes of APT’s American Buffalo, which plays at the indoor Touchstone Theater through early November. Director Ken Albers, and his actors, Brian Mani (Donny) and Brendan Meyer (Bobby), focus more on the sweet, father-and-son-like relationship between the characters. But that’s an absolute necessity to the play’s possibly devastating conclusion. And it’s nice to have a little soft comfort before the human tornado called Teach (James Ridge) whirles into Donny’s “Resale Shop.”

As Teach, Ridge sports a nasally Chicago accent that treats Mamet’s lines of dialogue like a jazz musician sporting a beat-up trumpet. (I’d say he was a disciple of Thelonious Monk judging from the off-kilter rhythms.)  He’s a great embodiment of Mamet’s self-appointed prince of the city (or at least of the neighborhood). He’ll issue a proclamation, then stand like a Hip-Hop star making an entrance at an arena concert—legs spread, eyes cast downward, arms crossed in front of him, hands deep in the pockets of his battered, oversized leather jacket (the pitch-perfect 70s-era costumes are by Anne Murphy). Even as he’s wheedling himself into a robbery scheme planned by Donny, he’s spouting his philosophy of friendship and other fine points of American life—or complaining about the doneness of his breakfast bacon.

As Donny, Mani is the bass line to Ridge’s solo flights—measured, solid, self-assured. Behind his beat up desk, he’s the one item onstage (the beautifully cluttered shop is by set designer Liz Freese) that isn’t for sale. And Meyer is solid as the sweet young kid who is trying to find his place amid the games and one-upmanship of the Chicago streets.

It’s vintage Mamet that—like the Much Ado up the hill—will be music to many ears. 

"Much Ado About Nothing" Photographs by Carissa Dixon.
"American Buffalo" Photographs by Zane Williams.





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