A Merry War About ‘Nothing,’ at TRTC

Tony nominated director Sam Buntrock and Obie winning actor Michael Cumpsty bring Shakespeare’s comedy MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING to the Red Bank stage, beginning this weekend at Two River Theater.

Flashback to the evening of May 2. The folks at Red Bank’s Two River Theater Company were proudly and publicly unveiling the new 2011-2012 season of mainstage entertainments at their branded Bridge Avenue arts center — their first under the purview of artistic director John Dias, and the first to offer an expanded schedule of seven productions (plus a holiday-season family show) at both of the building’s performance spaces.

For several magical minutes, however, the auditorium named for TRTC founders Robert and Joan Rechnitz was the bully pulpit of a special guest — British-born actor Michael Cumpsty, a major presence on Broadway and Off-Broadway stages (he won a 2006 Obie award for playing no less a role than Hamlet) and a sought-after specialist in the works of one William Shakespeare. Strolling the boards and extolling the attributes of the theater that opened in 2005, the 51 year old veteran of stage, screen and other screen hailed the Rechnitz room as “a singular space” for performing the Bard’s plays in their proper physical dimension and scale — and delivered excerpts that showed Shakespeare’s range of attitudes toward love, from purple proesy to pragmatic plainspeak.

Beginning with an extended run of preview performances this Saturday, September 10, and continuing a limited engagement through October 2, Cumpsty makes his official Two River Theater debut in one of Shakespeare’s most oft-produced comedies about love, Much Ado About Nothing. In this fresh take on marriage and mayhem in sunny Sicily with a cast of 15 actors, Cumpsty stars as the male half of that classic couple Beatrice and Benedick — a pair of combatants in a “merry war” who would seemingly rather be anything but betrothed to each other, until they and a pair of sickly-sweet lovebugs known as Claudio and Hero (Aaron Clifton Moten, Annapurna Sriram) are variously sabotaged, deceived and otherwise manipulated into and out of each other’s arms by a series of intrigues, misunderstandings and comical conspiracies.

Throw in a broadly comedic constable named Dogberry (TRTC vet John Ahlin, of Broadway’s Journey’s End and Waiting for Godot), a dastardly “bastard” nobleman and a literal squadron of surprise houseguests, and you’ve got a play that’s described by Dias as “very populist in its appeal…it deals with the complications over what it means to fall in love.”

The star wattage represented by Cumpsty (1776, 42nd Street, Richard III, Timon of Athens) and Ahlin extends as well to the show’s Beatrice, Kathryn Meisle (a Tony nominee for Tartuffe) and the show’s director — fellow Tony nominee Sam Buntrock, for whom Cumpsty co-starred in the 2008 Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George, and who, as one of the hottest and most in-demand directors on either side of the Atlantic, comes to Red Bank prior to beginning an extended residency at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre.

UpperWETside spoke of Nothing in particular with Michael Cumpsty — with Dias, a relatively recent arrival to Middletown Township, and a 30 year resident of “the colonies” who became a US citizen in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Two River Theater Company artistic director John Dias and MUCH ADO star Michael Cumpsty are at center, orbited by (clockwise from top right) castmates Kathryn Meisle, John Ahlin, Tia James and Steven Skybell.

upperWETside: Last time we saw you in Red Bank, you were onstage inside the Rechnitz auditorium at Two River, making a very eloquent case for the room being the perfect space for Mr. Shakespeare…

MICHAEL CUMPSTY: It’s a fantastic place for classical theater. It combines the breadth, height, depth of the plane space and the fly space, with a very intimate sort of feel — when you’re on stage you never feel far away from anyone in the house.

And, the fact that it’s curved mirrors the Elizabethan model — of course, in those days they would have had groundlings up front; all these people pressed right up and spilling over the lip of the stage. In our times, that might be a distraction.

Have you experienced any of Two River’s productions from the other side of the house? 

I hadn’t seen any of the productions here before John came on board, and I understand that many of them have been good. I did see Intimate Apparel, which was right at the beginning of John’s tenure, and thought it was gorgeous, marvelous — one of the best things I’ve seen.

Walk us through the process by which MUCH ADO was selected as the crucial first show under the stewardship of John Dias — was it pretty much accepted that this inaugural production would be one of the Bard’s works?

John thought from the start that the repertory here should be a mix of classical theater, American classics and new works, but certainly with Shakespeare at the center of the classical repertory — and his thinking was that the first play of the season should be Shakespeare, and that we should start with a comedy. John has a great deal of experience in Shakespeare, and I’d more or less established my profile as a Shakespearean actor, so it seemed logical for me to be a part of it.

Having worked so successfully with Sam Buntrock in the past, were you instrumental in his being attached to the project? And what does he bring to the table in this instance?

I’d done two productions with Sam — the Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park, and Take Flight over at McCarter — and I was impressed by the way that Sam covers both main aspects of what a director needs to do. He’s got the aesthetic vision, conceptual ability — and he’s also able to take the pieces of the text and understand what’s happening between the characters; to convey it to the actors and build the show moment by moment.

Our theater today dictates a certain amount of spectacle, and it’s those aesthetic directors who get the jobs, but who don’t necessarily know how to talk to the actors.

So, having worked with Sam, I approached him and we’re very fortunate to have him — he’s taking a position at Princeton, and we’re getting this happening director before he really gets busy over there.

It sounds like you’re playing a major offstage role in this production…what other sorts of input have you had regarding the project?

You mean other than a little domestic nagging here and there? (laughs) I try to stay out, but because I have a history, I feel that there are things I can contribute. In this instance I’m involved in shaping things.

Sam Buntrock directs Michael Cumpsty (and co-star Jenna Colella) in the McCarter Theater production of TAKE FLIGHT. (Photo by John Baer)

I’m guessing that you’ve had experience with this play in the past — so which of Shakespeare’s works would you most like to have a crack at in seasons to come?  

I just did Much Ado once, a long time ago — I’ve always loved it and wanted to have another go at it for many years.

One of the things I learned from doing Hamlet was that I should have done it earlier! I was a much older Hamlet, about 43 at that time, and I would have liked to have had a few opportunities to really learn it. I should start working on doing Lear right now, so that I can learn it a few times in a workshop sort of environment.

I’m keen to do Julius Caesar — somebody sent me a link to a recording of Charles Laughton performing excerpts from the play, and it reminded me just how magnificent it is; taut, political. I think it points up the danger of rhetoric in political manipulation.

How about items outside the Shakespeare folio? What could you see yourself having at on the stage of Two River, or a similarly scaled theater? 

I love doing comedy — I’d love to do some Coward; some Orton. I love language comedy — although I’m also fond of shtick; of falling over the back of the couch.

Now, it’s my understanding that the action is MUCH ADO has been transposed, as happens a lot, to the early part of the 20th century; kind of on the eve of the Second World War…  

It’s sort of 30s-ish, set in Sicily as the play is designed. The play’s written in a familial way, and there’s a sense in our production that this house is more domestic than formal and grand — it feels Italian. People live al fresco, eat at a big table. We’re going for a sun-drenched, sort of ‘barefoot’ experience — very Dolce Vita, very loose, with everybody dressed in borrowed linen shirts and khaki pants.

Here in the USA we’ve always had a problematic relationship with Shakespeare; we’ve been intimidated by him to some degree and I suppose we draw some comfort from a setting that offers a bit more familiar frame of reference. Would you say that playing around with the time frame; dressing the actors in more modern garb, helps to sell Shakespeare to the American audience?

You know, I enjoy the spectacle of a beautifully costumed show — I’m not alienated by that — but there’s a contemporary feel in Much Ado About Nothing that allows us to work here within that loose sort of mood. There’s a scene in the play that’s often staged as a very formal court dance, but Sam didn’t feel it was appropriate — so they pull out a chest of dress-up clothes; people are having fun trying on costumes, while all this mischief and intrigue is being seeded around them.

As someone who’s made his home here in America for many years, do you anymore think of yourself as an American actor? Do the distinctions between the so-called English actors and American actors even exist, or matter to you by this point?

People call me American or English depending on the point they want to make. I’ve been here over 30 years, since I was 19 — but your identity is so formed by your late teens that it’s hard to completely disappear into an American identity.

I always said that if I ever go ‘home’ to England, I’d go to England to ‘find’ it — and when I got a chance to work there about ten years ago, it just didn’t feel like home to me. Then 9/11 happened, and it made me feel like a true New Yorker — shortly after that, I became an American citizen.

I took training to work on my American accent, and started going after a wider variety of roles. it’s only in the last ten to twelve years that I’ve been trying to market myself as a regular bloke — to use the English term — rather than as The English Actor. And it’s been successful, to a great extent. Some of my favorite roles have been in very American things like 1776, where I played John Dickinson, and in 42nd Street.

Much Ado About Nothing begins a full week of previews on Saturday, September 10; opens Saturday, September 17 (that performance is SOLD OUT), and runs a schedule of evening and matinee performances, Wednesdays through Sundays until October 2. Tickets are $37 – $67 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.

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