Despite a rocky start with “additional text” consisting of embarrassingly bad rhyming couplets, director Jackson Gay’s Much Ado About Nothing proves a great night out at the theatre. It’s an unconventional but still hilarious take on one of the Bard’s most accessible plays.
Despite a rocky start of embarrassingly bad modern rhyming couplets, director Jackson Gay’s Much Ado About Nothing proves a great night out at the theatre. Don’t be (too) put off by the “adaptation” and, worse, “additional text”, for one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays. When they do the text, they do it beautifully and hilariously. It’s a production of inversions: a diverse cast of men and women, almost of all whom get to swap genders at some point. And there are plenty of unexpected takes: Benedick (Stacy Ross) as the romantic hero; Beatrice (James Carpenter) as a meek old biddy; Ursula (Lance Gardner) as a scene-stealer; and Dogberry (Anthony Fusco) as the straight man.
In Gay’s production, Messina is a catering company, and the actors are employees cleaning up from the past night’s events while re-enacting what they’ve seen. As they tell their stories, each of them grabs an identifying costume — a hat or a jacket — sometimes even swapping parts until they’ve built up a cast of the Bard’s characters. It’s an effective way to make the production entirely gender-blind and race-blind in its casting, but I’m not sure it needed this gimmick to get us to go along with the premise. CalShakes has a history of diverse casting, and it’s never stood out as requiring suspension of disbelief: it always just worked and felt right.
Following in the footsteps of Emma Rice’s controversial modernization of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe Theatre earlier this year, Gay takes big risks with the text by adding original speeches at the beginning and end of the play. I suspect this is to take Shakespeare neophytes by the hand into the production, but the results are decidedly mixed. The familiar, modern language segues smoothly into Shakespeare’s 16th century blank verse, so the audience doesn’t have to work hard to keep up with the text from the start. But clumsy couplets like “I think your music’s great/sorry you have to stay here so late” and “tuna tartare/I was driving the car” are cringe-inducing. Luckily, once the prologue is through, the memory of this blunder quickly disappeared. I became utterly absorbed in the action and the measured line readings of the original.
Ever since Emma Thompson stole the show as the quick-witted Beatrice in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation, productions of Much Ado About Nothing have frequently orbited around Beatrice. If done right, she’s one of the bard’s most vibrant creations. Much Ado productions usually live and die by the chemistry between Beatrice and the man she loves to hate and hates to love, Benedick. Their verbal wars must crackle with sexual tension and charisma. Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2015 production achieved this and more.
Gay’s focus is elsewhere: finding the fun and the comedy in under-explored parts of the play. He does this to the detriment of the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. Because the actors are picking their characters and swapping hats onstage in the scene when Benedick and Beatrice first spar, we don’t get to see the actors who will play these parts facing off very much, meaning their connection is barely established at the start. Carpenter’s Beatrice is nearly the opposite of the strong, compelling woman we’ve come to expect. But Ross as Benedick is a revelation, sympathetic and clever. When she’s on stage, you hardly miss Beatrice — and this production’s weak Beatrice really highlights how little is there on the page for her, like so many of Shakespeare’s women.
The production is full of nice touches. Leave it to Denmo Ibrahim, a busty Latina woman with gumption galore, to make Claudio much more than the wet rag he usually is. As Don Pedro, Lance Gardner finds a middle ground between serious admiration for Beatrice and enough immaturity for us to buy Don John’s plot immediately. Patrick Alparone plays Don John as a petulant teenager: he can’t come on stage without throwing something about, my favourite being when he just whacks a bunch of boxes off a table for no reason. And Gay choreographs Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato like a chorus line for the gulling scene when they intimate to an unsuspecting Benedick that they believe Beatrice is in love with him.
It’s freeing to see a production that casts the best person for each part, regardless of race or gender. But Gay’s tradeoff seems to be to fall back on two-dimensional gender stereotypes for so many of the characters, lest we remember that the men playing women are indeed men. Lance Gardner’s scene-stealing Ursula is a great surprise, but she’s also exactly what you’d think of as a “sassy black woman” — a highly problematic stereotype — complete with an exaggeratedly effeminate hairband. Beatrice is a relatively flat, quiet old spinster who lashes out at Benedick because she’s still unwed, but she lacks the bite or joie de vivre that the lines allow. Nevertheless, Ross and Ibrahim find unexpected nuance in their characters that I’ve never seen from male actors playing female roles.
Despite my quibbles, Gay has achieved his goal of making an accessible Much Ado About Nothing for both people who have never seen the play and long time fans. I just wish it had left me with more to chew on with its take on the text.