Shakespeare Festival Opens 2015 Season with a Triumphal Update of Much Ado About Nothing
by Lee Greene
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) officially kicked off its 2015 Season on Friday evening, Feb. 27 with the opening performance of a new production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. Much Ado was written by Shakespeare around 1598, in the middle of his career as a playwright, and right from the start was one of his most popular plays, as it remains today. It is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, combining hilarious humor and clever word play, with more serious concerns about class antagonism, gender conflict, deception, infidelity, honor, shame, marriage and more.
The basic plot, as originally devised by Shakespeare, has a company of upper class soldiers (right from the start, class tensions are obvious: “How many . . . have you lost in this action?’ “. . . none of name”) triumphantly returning after concluding a war, stopping to visit at the estate of the Governor (Leonato) of the Sicilian city of Messina, a great European city in Shakespeare’s time, and hence a prominent man surrounded by an important court. The company of soldiers, led by a prince, Don Pedro, also include a couple of war heroes, Claudio and Benedick. Benedick is witty and charming and has a history in Messina, where he once had a fling with the feisty, witty, mouthy and tough-as-nails Beatrice, the niece of Leonato. Claudio, young, impetuous and fresh from a war, immediately falls in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero. Claudio enlists Don Pedro’s help to woo Hero and the two are betrothed. Meanwhile, Don Pedro, Leonato, Claudio and Hero contrive to deceive Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love with each other, and stage overheard conversations for each of them to advance that result.
The villain of the piece, in Shakespeare’s original, is bitter, resentful Don John, the illegitimate half-brother of Don Pedro, who has accompanied the company to Messina, though he was apparently on the losing side and against his brother in the just concluded war. In Shakespeare’s time, Don John had much to be bitter and resentful about: as a bastard child, he is not entitled to any of the perquisites enjoyed by his legitimate brother and the rest of the lords and ladies around him – no property, no money, no title, no privilege. So Don John applies his resentment to the making of maximum mischief at every opportunity, to disrupt the happiness and well-being of those around him. In a major plot point, Don John, with the assistance of a couple of associates, deceives Claudio into believing that his betrothed was unfaithful, committing adultery the night before their planned wedding, by staging a coupling by a pair of impersonators in Hero’s window for Claudio and Don Pedro to see. Claudio, enraged by the apparent betrayal, at the wedding in front of all refuses to marry and defames his betrothed, leaving Hero at the altar, where she denies the infidelity, and in the face of the abrupt shock, collapses. Leonato, believing what he hears about his daughter from Claudio and Don Pedro, is ready to forsake the girl, but the wedding friar intervenes, urges time for the facts to be more fully ascertained, and suggests in the meantime she be secreted away and declared dead so as to avoid shame.
Beatrice is convinced that her cousin Hero has been falsely accused, and enlists the aid of the besotted Benedick “to kill Claudio.” He doesn’t, though he does confront Claudio and issue him a challenge. Before that can actually happen, the town constable (a buffoon named Dogberry), his assistant Verges, and a couple of their watchmen uncover Don John’s deception, when two of the watchmen overhear one of the accomplices bragging about being paid to participate in the impersonated staging. This is conveyed to Leonato, who confronts Claudio and Don Pedro for falsely slandering his daughter and causing her “death.” As penance, Claudio agrees to two requests from Leonato: that he make a public apology for the slander, and that he agree to marry a cousin of Hero (actually a concealed Hero herself – yet another deception). Don John flees, Claudio apologizes and marries the cousin, who happily turns out to be Hero, Benedict becomes betrothed to Beatrice, and only Don Pedro is left uncoupled and alone (Benedick: “Get thee a wife!”). Thus despite all the class and gender warfare, all ends happily.
The twist in this production was to take the story, originally staged in 16th century England, with its rigid class, gender and geniture rules, and adapt it to a 21st century world that a contemporary American audience could more readily relate to. Easier said than done. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has put a lot of thought into this, having previously done another updated production of Much Ado at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre. The greatest difficulties are posed by the changes in society from Shakespeare’s time and place to today’s reality, which no longer presents the rigid kind of class structure which is so much a part of Shakespeare’s world and the plot of Much Ado. In particular, it’s not easy to devise an analog to Don John’s circumstances, which would give rise to such intense bitterness to drive such abject villainy. Ms. Blain-Cruz provided some of her thoughts on the subject in a recorded interview filmed in June 2014 during the preparation of this production.
In discussion after the opening, Ms. Blain-Cruz further explained that the issue presented by Shakespeare is “What does it mean to be a 2nd class citizen?” To depict that in the context of contemporary society, she found a solution by changing the gender of Don John from a male soldier to a female soldier, as women in the military today are especially subject to treatment as “2nd class citizens”: not being fully accepted, being restricted in what they are permitted to do relative to their male colleagues, subject to violence, rape, and general disdain – and thus generating some of the bitterness and resentment at the core of the villainous Don John character.
Overall this updated production was a hands-down winning triumph. The sets and costumes were superb – with the company of soldiers marching in at the first scene wearing contemporary battle fatigue uniforms, wearing formal white uniforms for the dances, and progressing to beautiful blue military dress uniforms for the wedding and final act. Props were used to good effect, including soldiers on cellphones, exercising with kettle weights, and Constable Dogberry motoring around the stage on a Segway two-wheeled standing motorized vehicle. Much of the action (marching, dances, etc.) was accompanied by a selection of upbeat contemporary music.
The casting was spot on. The entertainment core of the play belongs to the pair, Benedick and Beatrice, who engage in a merry war of wits, and are given much of the clever language and humorous lines by Shakespeare. The roles were played to perfection in this production by Danforth Comins and Christiana Clark. Clark’s rendering of the mouthy, sharp, witty, repartee spoken by Beatrice was something special to hear and see, applying fantastic timing, exquisite delivery, and amusing expression. Comins had the audience in stitches. In one scene, he kept the audience roaring with laughter for over 10 minutes straight, as he writhed around the circumference of the stage on the floor trying to conceal himself, while Claudio and Don Pedro stage the conversation for him to overhear that is calculated to make him fall in love with Beatrice by discussing how much Beatrice loves him and is going to lengths to conceal it from him. Jack Willis does a commendable job of portraying a believable Leonato, at times hospitable, proud, smug, affronted, or distraught. Rex Young chews up his scenes as the language mangling, self-important constable Dogberry. The rest of the cast do fine work in portraying their roles, especially Cristofer Jean as the princely Don Pedro, Carlo Alban as the naïve Claudio, and Leah Anderson as the taciturn Hero. Special note must be made of Regan Linton, who drew perhaps the toughest assignment, as the wounded female war veteran, the villainous Don John of this production, constrained to do most of her sinister acting from a wheelchair.
Director Blain-Cruz made a number of other changes to the original Shakespeare production, in staging this updated version, to very positive effect. Most significantly, whereas Shakespeare notably does not stage the Hero bedroom window adultery scene in his version – it is purely off-stage second-hand telling by Don Pedro and Claudio in Shakespeare’s script. But in this production, it is dramatically, however quickly, presented on stage for the audience to witness. Asked about adding this heretofore unseen scene, Ms. Blain-Cruz pointed to Don John’s lines in the play: “If you dare not trust what you see, confess not that you know. If you will follow me, I will show you enough; and when you have seen more and heard more, proceed accordingly.” She wanted the audience to see it, to help them to sympathize with Claudio’s anger. In another beneficial change, Dogberry’s male assistant watchman, Verges, has been morphed into his mother, a member of the watch, to very funny effect. Careful readers of the play will also notice the absence here of the character Antonio, Leonato’s brother and the father of Beatrice. He doesn’t have very many lines in the play to begin with and obviously none that are critical. Perhaps his best line in the original script is “At a word, I am not.” To borrow Jean-Luc Picard’s Star Trek phrase: “Make it so.” Hats off to Ms. Blain-Cruz, the cast and crew for presenting a highly amusing, very entertaining, successful and well received by the packed opening night audience updated production of Much Ado About Nothing.
OSF will be performing Much Ado About Nothing in repertoire through November 1. OSF will also be opening three additional plays this weekend which they will be performing in repertoire with Much Ado About Nothing: Pericles opens at 1:30 pm on Feb. 28 in the Thomas Theatre, Guys and Dolls opens at 8 pm Feb. 28 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, and Fingersmith opens at 1:30 pm in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. For dates and times of performances, and ticketing, check the OSF website at https://www.osfashland.org/en/experience-osf/current-season/buy-tickets.aspx or call the OSF Box Office at 800-219-8161.
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on February 28, 2015 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/shakespeare-festival-opens-2015-season-triumphal-update-much-ado-nothing/