THE BLOG
02/18/2013 10:14 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

First Nighter: Much Ado About Nothing , Parsifal , The Laramie Project , Powder Her Face All on Tap If Not All Tip-Top

One of the ironies about Much Ado About Nothing is its demand that any good director make much ado of a new production -- just not too much ado. Count on Arin Arbus -- the Theater for a New Audience helmer of choice to much-ado William Shakespeare these past several years -- to know exactly what kind of -- and how much -- ado to make. Her realization of the unsurpassed comedy in the canon is a big winner.

One of the best aspects of her work at the Duke is the casting. Get the right people for this -- or any play, of course -- and you've gotten maybe 90 percent of the way there. Much Ado needs, every Bardolator knows, a Benedick and Beatrice to go about wittily scoffing each other when not seeing that Hero and Claudio get properly married while all sorts of other merry buffoons and a couple of naughty villains cavort.

Arbus couldn't have done better. Jonathan Cake's Benedick has precisely the required arched eyebrow and arched delivery for the man who forswears romantic engagement until the very moment he swears allegiance to it. As Beatrice, Maggie Siff spends more time than necessary with her hands on her hops as if portraying a sugar bowl but rises to Cake's layers when it's most desired.

Matter of fact -- or opinion bordering on fact -- not another member of the troupe is anywhere near a weak link. So thanks for making Shakespeare look like the comic genius he is (with forays into the tragic) go to Matthew Amendt, Michelle Beck, Denis Butkus, Liam Forde, John Christopher Jones, John Keating, Robert Langdon Lloyd, Kate MacCluggage, Peter Maloney, Paul Niebanck, Saxon Palmer, Elizabeth Meadows Rouse, musician Spiff Wiegand and Graham Winton.

One of the numerous Arbus niceties is how well but not extravagantly she uses the thrust stage -- allows it to conjure Shakespeare's Globe. Fernando Hernandez keeps the appointments minimal, though a swing is often in use. Contance Hoffman's comfy costumes suggest an early 19th-century Messina.)

Arbus has also come up with sight gags that keep the audience guffaws coming, and the actors certainly join her in that pursuit. Maybe the best and most surprising of them involves a mirror, but no more will be said here.

***

There are those who say Richard Wagner's Parsifal is, owing to its spiritual underpinnings (Christianity, Buddhism, among its influences), a taste acquired over time. But maybe not. It's hard to think that anyone simply listening to the Metropolitan Opera's new production as conducted by Daniele Gatti wouldn't be transported the instant the composer's moody prelude begins.

When the singing gets underway, the score's magnetism only strengthens. In the title role Jonas Kaufmann (yes, physique fans, he's bare-chested at one point), projects the requisite steadfast innocence (if not the foolishness often mentioned in Wagner's libretto), although there were moments on opening night when his projection of anything vocal flagged.

Not so with either René Pape as Gurnemanz or Katarina Dalayman as Kundry. Surprising no one, Pape filled the room with his base and filled his characterization with the calculating Gurnemanz's changing motives. Dalayman kept Kundry appropriately enigmatic and, when mentioning the woman's compulsion to shriek, she shrieked operatically. Peter Mattei was a strong-through-his-wound Amfortas, and Runi Brattaberg as Titurel, and Evgeny Nitikin as Klingsor made their presence known.

But what about director Francois Girard? He, set designer Michael Levine, costume designer Thibault Vancraenenbroeck, lightening designer David Finn and video designer Peter Flaherty scored more hits than misses. The most hits were apparent in the second act, when first the flower-maiden sequence (chilling choreography by Carolyn Choa) and then Kundry's seduction were mesmerizing. How, spectators, had to wonder did the women's white costumes take on the blood-red stains? (The symbolism of blood in Parsifal is a whole other conundrum.)

Girard's first and third acts raise more doubts. The wardrobe of choice for the men in the first act is open-neck white shirts and dark trousers. The setting is a darkling plain giving onto a view of the sky where gliding planets dissolved into curling smoke that had a 2001 cast. Okay, we get the illusion to God's vast cosmos. The third act, where redemption finally occurs, unfolds on a (perhaps) Golgotha-like hillock. Here the dress code is non-chic-shabby.

For the record: Girard's now-it-work-gangbusters-now-it-doesn't treatment undoubtedly accounts for the near-Wagnerian boos greeting the director and creative team at their bow. Never mind. It now seems de rigeur for a certain number of the Met crowd to jeer anything deviating from tradition that Peter Gelb brings to his stage. Here's one that must be judged by the individual attendee.

***

When composer Thomas Adés and librettist Philip Henscher opera-ized the society scandal of mid-20th-century Margaret Whigham, divorced from the Duke of Argyll, their purpose may have been solely to comment on a shocking age. Surely, the melange of instruments Adés employs for melodic lines is the aural equivalent of an EKG going haywire, and that about capture something that feels right. The wooziness of times out of joint is perfectly fitting.

As the eight scenes follow, however, the shock of what's going on among the characters -- practically non-stop sex in the four-scene first act, one segment where 20 naked men stroll about blankly while the bored duchess orders wine -- begins to wear thin. So does the incessantly neurotic music throttling the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

While, however, it's not easy to sustain interest in familiar increasingly porn-influenced situations -- not when Lena Dunham's Girls offers them weekly -- there's lots to be said for the production, directed by Jay Scheib and designed for elegance by Marsha Ginsberg. The four singers keep things lively. Conducted with spirit by Jonathan Stockhammer, they're Allison Cook as the duchess with a sordid past, Nili Riemer as a fun-loving maid, William Ferguson as a randy electrician and Matt Boehler as consort, judge and hotel manager.

***

Because of a scheduling conflict I couldn't avoid, I was only able to get to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey for the Tectonic Theater Project's revival of The Laramie Project, which is now cogently paired with The Laramie Project Ten Years Later, which has never been performed entirely in New York City.

Apparently, the fascination of the sequel is its presenting the Laramie citizens as having hardened their views on the nature of Matthew Shepard's murder in 1998. Initially, they were mostly welcoming to the Tectonic company as its members gathered information for their play about the assassination.

I can't comment on the follow-up and under different circumstances might have chosen not to comment at all, but what is now the first half remains so utterly moving in its portrait of a town under fire for two men's hate crime that I can't resist recommending it. Many of the writers/cast are back and every bit as compelling as they were then. The ensemble now, all of them doubling, includes Michael Winther as Kaufman, Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrera, Libby King, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti and Barbara Pitts.

Supposedly, there was some concern that this remarkable stage documentary would seem dated these 15 years on. It doesn't. Not one iota. Would that it did.

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