"Joe (Dowling, who directs) wanted more of a nuanced story from us, and to see a reason why they do the things that they do," Menzel says. "In his mind, Don John has a legitimate way in how he wants to control the world. He tries to control the world my making other people's worlds harder."
The play centers on two pairs of potential lovers: younger Claudio and Hero (which is where Don John interferes) and older Beatrice and Benedict. The older couple has loudly proclaimed that they hate romance, and each other. During the play, the ice melts and sharp-witted love blossoms.
All of this presents plenty of exciting challenges for the cast. First among those, as often is the case with Shakespeare, is the language. The play does include considerably more prose than most other pieces by the Bard, which certainly helps. The production's voice and language consultant Andrew Wade has "kept us honest to the text."
Menzel also finds that Shakespeare's characters "think" quicker than in contemporary plays. "In modern American drama, oftentimes the characters ruminate quite a bit. In Shakespeare, the characters are in a bit of a passion, though they are very articulate in that passion," he says.
Having a top-notch cast for the play certainly helps. It's led by British actors Daniel Gerroll (who played Scrooge in the Guthrie's 2010 production of A Christmas Carol) as Benedict and Dearbhla Molloy as Beatrice. The cast also features Raye Birk, Michelle O'Neil, Emily Gunyou Halaas, Bob Davis, Michael Booth, and Peter Michael Goetz.
The last of those names has caused some "trouble" for Menzel. "He makes you laugh so much at rehearsal, it's hard to stay in the scene," he says.
"Watching Dearbhla and Danny find this beautiful relationship has been great. I am as much a viewer of theater as an actor, and it's always enjoyable to watch good actors at work," Menzel adds.
The material helps. "I hear the echoes of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, of those great film comedies of the 1930s and '40s. There is all this rapid fire, sexually charged repartee between men and women that still holds up pretty well.
The show has gone through a week of dress rehearsals and previews leading up to Friday's opening night, which has provided invaluable experience, Menzel says. In the case of his second character, the Sexton, it has brought a brand-new approach. Initially the role, present in a wild and comedic scene with malapropish Dogberry, was a full part of the world, as outlandish as the rest.
"After previews Joe saw that he is the straight man in the scene. The costume design changed, so it's less comical and more sober and lucid. I also changed the way I played the character."