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Much Ado About Nothing

Gettin' Down to Some Real Shakespeare

American Shakespeare Center, Method in Madness Tour, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Sunday, September 7, 2014, C–5&6 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Benjamin Curns

Benedick in old-style formal navy uniform carries Beatrice, wearing his hat and a black vest and pants with pinstriped shirt.
Patrick Earl plays Benedick and Stephanie Holladay Earl plays Beatrice in the American Shakespeare Company's Method in Madness Tour production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Michael Bailey, American Shakespeare Center.

The 1970s. I was there. I boogied. I may not have been Travolta, but I was a master of the dance floor; I could even do the splits and, in one motion, bounce up and turn to the opposite splits (nowadays when I get down, I tend to stay down). No, I didn't wear the flared pants, ruffled shirts, platform shoes, and baby-blue velvet suits; my velvet suit was red. Meanwhile, the bell-bottom and high-waist pants and jump suits the women wore while I was in college in the late Seventies caused me to despise the passing of the miniskirts and hip-hugging jeans of my high school years. Some of the music was silly, but no more so than that of any other decade, and this decade gave us Earth, Wind, and Fire, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, New Wave, and some of the most earnest poetry the English language has ever delivered, courtesy of KC and the Sunshine Band ("That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh. That's the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh").

For the second time this year, we've been subjected to a William Shakespeare play set in the hedonistic Seventies. Back in the winter it was the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's Merry Wives of Windsor set in the D.C. of the go-go era, and now it is the American Shakespeare Company's Method in Madness Tour troupe's staging of Much Ado About Nothing. In the present instance, except for a couple of missteps, the boogie vibe does boost the entertainment value of the production; but, frankly, the Seventies trappings almost obscure this brilliantly interpreted and expertly acted presentation of Shakespeare's rom-com.

Because the Shakespeare in this production is so outstanding, my critique of the setting might sound petty. And it's not all bad. That the masque at Leonato's house is presented in Hustle style is kind of cool, the lines being molded to the rhythms of the music: "Speak low when you speak looooovvve." However, late in the play, Benedick (Patrick Earl), trying to compose a love poem to Beatrice (Stephanie Holladay Earl), complains that he "can find out no rhyme to 'lady' but 'baby'—an innocent rhyme." Not so in the Seventies: lady/baby and, for that matter, school/fool were go-to rhymes. Benedick hasn't been listening to the radio or watching The Midnight Special. Thanks to Costume Designer Erin M. West, I can laugh at Leonato's baby blue tuxedo with pink-striped bowtie and cummerbund and at Antonio's turtleneck and plaid leisure suit. However, I cringe at Beatrice's flared, high-waisted slacks: Some nightmares are best left in the closet.

Don Pedro (Josh Innerst) and his crew are in the Navy—and, yes, they sing "In The Navy" as part of the preshow speech. There's nothing wrong in and of itself with outfitting them as U.S. seamen—I've seen Don Pedtro's company as World War II U.S. Army Air Force members returning to their English base, as Cuban counter-revolutionary soldiers, and as Washington, D.C., bicycle cops. My beef, actually, is that the U.S. Navy uniforms have too much detail. Don Pedro wears the rank of commander, which is only half way up the officer chain (an O-5 out of 10 ranks), his brother is an O-4, and the two petty officers first class, Benedick and Claudio, are midrange NCOs (non-commissioned officers). That all seems a bit low in rank for the Prince of Aragon (an admiral, perhaps?) and his officers, who I think would be lieutenants and ensigns. That's a choice, granted, but the fact that all wear their proper nametags even during the masque defies the logic of a scene in which Don Pedro woos as Claudio, Claudio pretends to be Benedick, and Benedick pretends to not be Benedick when he's dancing with Beatrice—though, I admit, that provides an inside joke to Benedick later saying "That my Lady Beatrice should know me and not know me." Of course, they must wear nametags or be in violation of uniform code, so there's that dilemma.

Am I picking at nits? Maybe. But the plot of Much Ado About Nothing already tests credulity; the setting shouldn't add any more. Ironically, under the direction of Benjamin Curns, a veteran ASC actor who has been a member of previous touring troupes and played a memorable Benedick in a Renaissance Season production two years ago at the Blackfriars Playhouse, this production otherwise renders an incredibly believable storyline progression, easily gliding over perceived plot holes. From Don Pedro wooing for Claudio through the gulling of Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love, through the gulling of Claudio about Hero's chastity and his subsequent shaming of Hero, through Leonato's reaction to the shaming of Hero, through Benedick's challenge to Claudio, and all the way through the discovery of Don John's villainy and Claudio's repentance, Curns maintains the plot's credibility with text-centric character development and focused pacing. The first time we say "huh?" is in Act Five when Leonato (Ben Gorman) offers up as revenge for the supposed death of his daughter that Claudio should marry his niece instead. That's hard to make credible in any era.

One key to Curns's success is that he stays true to Shakespeare's script. He does not stage the event of Claudio with Don Pedro and Don John watching Borachio courting Margaret in Hero's name, as too many productions do these days. Petty Officer Third Class Borachio (Stephen Brunson) explains the scam in detail to Don John (Patrick Poole) beforehand, and then repeats his description after the event to Conrad (Emily Joshi-Powell, dressed in a Navy mechanic's coveralls). So why waste time showing what we hear twice? One key line in Borachio's presenting the plan to Don John is parenthetical: "…to see me at her chamber window, hear me call Margaret Hero, hear Margaret term me Claudio, and bring them to see this the very night before the intended wedding—for in the meantime I will so fashion the matter that Hero shall be absent—." That last bit is important information (though I had never paid attention to it before this production, a credit to Brunson), as it suggests Borachio will be executing a far more elaborate plot than the play has time or desire to show (and how insidious that Margaret is to call him Claudio rather than Borachio—that makes Hero seem a cynic as well as a slut). Shakespeare goes to great lengths to say this thing happened without explaining how it actually happened, and by keeping us in the dark and keeping the actual event offstage, the results we do see, both in the wedding scene and when Claudio learns the truth, become all the more powerful.

What about Margaret (Joshi-Powell)? Shouldn't she have some stains of guilt upon her? That question is irrelevant in the play Shakespeare wrote. He shows us Margaret joking with Hero (Susie Parr) and Beatrice preparing for the wedding, and Curns makes a sly choice in having Margaret serve as the Messenger who fetches Leonato to church. She, however, doesn't take part in the wedding, and it is only critics who assume that she learns the reason why Claudio wrongly accused Hero. Borachio later testifies that Margaret was innocent of any wrongdoing, and Margaret clearly has no idea that any wrongdoing has occurred.

And what about Claudio? Immature or monster? Moral in the extreme or egotistical? Playing Claudio, Tim Sailer doesn't explore these psychoses because Shakespeare doesn't. The most Claudio reveals of himself is when he tells Don Pedro that he had transitioned from a soldier before the war to a doter when seeing Hero upon his return: Benedick testifies to this transformation in Claudio, too. Hero is his first experience with love, and Don Pedro, aware of that and Claudio's obvious shyness (which we see displayed a couple of times), steps in as proxy suitor. When Don John informs Claudio and Don Pedro of Hero's lasciviousness and offers to escort them to see a suitor at her window, Sailer speaks Claudio's comment about showing up Hero in the church as more of a dare to Don John than a conclusion: Show me she's unchaste, and I'll proclaim it in the church before everybody at the wedding—it's as much a warning to Don John that he better be sure of his report.

What Claudio doesn't know is that Don John doesn't care. In his program notes, Curns opines that Don John is a prototype for Iago. "Like Iago, Don John never sets out to kill anyone; but he does make people miserable," writes the director who has also played Iago on this stage, too. Poole's Don John certainly is an Iago in the making. Foregoing any Snidely Whiplash mugging or pathological mannerisms, Poole gives us a Don John of humorless malevolence with a simmering anger over his lack of position. I've seen a range of Don Johns, from patently evil to satirically funny, but Poole's makes me believe he poses a real danger to his brother, to Claudio, and to anybody else who puts him down.

By contrast, Innerst is a fun-loving Don Pedro, always looking for a good time, whether it's hanging out at the wealthy Leonato's home, helping his protégé to a bride, or engineering a practical joke on Benedick. As he proposes to Beatrice, he gets on one knee when she has her back to him. As she turns around, she switches from merry banter to shock, and Innerst's Don Pedro breaks out laughing: gotcha! At least that's the impression he leaves. After the interrupted wedding scene and Hero's supposed death, Don Pedro next appears drinking and already drunk, and it is in this state that he is accosted by Leonato and Antonio, then by Benedick, and then by the arrested Borachio. Don Pedro can't party away Borachio's too-stabbing news. Nor can Claudio easily process it. Sailer does some sublime acting as Claudio resists arriving at the obvious truth of the mistake he was party to. Our reaction is to feel for him.

Integral to the construction of the storytelling and the emotional landscape we traverse in this Much Ado is the fine acting by every member of this troupe, starting with Earl as Benedick. In his very first scene, the way his bravado skates along on the thin ice of insecurity, you know you are watching one of the great Benedicks. Parr captures the young innocence of Hero—when she and Claudio share their first kiss, Parr erupts in the cutest oh-my-god! giggle—into the wedding scene. She then conveys how rapidly Hero grows up in that scene. Andrew Goldwasser plays Dogberry as a Buford T. Justice redneck sheriff, except his uniform includes a pair of shorts two sizes too small. Poole, that malevolent Don John, is a hilarious Verges, oblivious to Dogberry's obvious superiority. Gorman and the Earls play the Watch in rain slickers and brandishing flashlights as if they were new inventions. This threesome combined with Goldwasser's Dogberry and Poole's Verges generate a nonstop laugh track from the audience.

Earl, in blue golf shirt and wearing glasses, plays a standup bass.
Patrick Earl rehearses one of the musical numbers the ASC Method in Madness Tour troupe plays in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Jay McClure, American Shakespeare Center.

Every member of the cast does double duty, and Goldwasser has the challenge of switching from Dogberry to Antonio, Leonato's brother, in back-to-back scenes. He can't make the change in time for the scene in which Antonio counsels his brother to patience in the wake of Claudio's slander of Hero, so Ursula (Alexandra Leigh) fills in for Antonio in this conversation. But Goldwasser's Antonio does show up in time to accost Claudio and Don Pedro, and in this moment he launches into a rhetorical attack on Claudio as threatening as a Phillie fan seething over a 5-run seventh. Brunson, in addition to playing Borachio, portrays Balthazar as a laid-back, stoned Seventies troubadour when he sings "Sigh Not So" for Don Pedro and company.

Ah, yes, the music. That buzz you hear emanating from the Shenandoah Valley is not just appreciation of this troupe's performances of this play, Hamlet, and Christopher Marlow's Doctor Faustus; it's audience enthrallment with the company's live musical preshow and intermission performances. On acoustic instruments (Shakespeare's company didn't have electric guitars and amps, so neither do ASC's players) and with strong vocals, these guys, truly, can shake your body down to the ground. In fact, they play that Jackson Five song for the big dance number at the end of Much Ado. The preshow and intermission song list covers all of the decade's genres, and each title is suitably thematic to Shakespeare's play: "Brand New Key" by Melanie, "Ladies Night" by Kool and the Gang, "Groovy Situation" by Gene Chandler, "The Boys Are Back in Town" by Thin Lizzy, "Mr. Big Stuff" by Jean Knight, "No Feelings" by the Sex Pistols, "I Can See Clearly Now" by Johnny Nash, "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye, "Black Water" by the Doobie Brothers, and, as mentioned before, the Village People's "In the Navy." For the masque they call on KC and the Sunshine Band, employing lyrics Shakespeare could never conceive ("I wanna put on my, my, my, my, my boogie shoes just to boogie with you, yeah. I wanna put on my, my, my, my, my boogie shoes just to boogie with you, yeah").

Really, nit-picking aside, this show is happening, man. And so is Shakespeare.

Eric Minton
September 19, 2014

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