It seems there are three simple rules to staging Shakespeare successfully. One: put the play in a modern setting, like, say, a dive bar in Anytown, country unknown. Second, inject as much action as possible into the working script, quickening the pace to modern tastes. Third, no matter how clunky or inappropriate it may sound, do not monkey with the Bard of Avon’s dialogue.
Taffety Punk Theatre’s presentation of Much Ado About Nothing succeeds, and succeeds fantastically because director Eleanor Holdridge and Taffety Punk’s “Riot Grrrls” ensemble follow a fourth, unwritten rule: don’t take it too seriously.
Theatre companies still produce Shakespeare plays, and do not produce plays by Middleton or Fletcher, because the Bard’s plays are so quotable, and they have an uncanny way of portraying a range of human emotions at their barest. Context, however, can be a problem. Shakespeare may be a colossus, but he is a distant colossus, viewed in the glare of a rear-view mirror. Human emotions have changed little since his time, but the mode of human relations has changed considerably. If you’re not convinced, picture a modern-styled Hamlet telling an equally modern-styled Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery.”
Staging the Shakespeare tragedies can be difficult, because they can be, well, very serious. Directors have taken to staging their plays with spare sets and generic costumes. When they are successful, the audience will feel that the drama is set in some alternate universe, where the rules of conduct are different than ours, but the people are the same. Comedy is much easier; it is supposed to be a big joke anyhow. When your timing is correct, you can put the play into any context you want.
You’ll want the context the Riot Grrrls pick for Much Ado. In fact, if you want more from the Riot Grrrls in this production, you are impossible to please. Their performance is as tongue-in-cheek as you can get without being parody. Every one of Shakespeare’s legendary lines is delivered with a wink, at least in the first act.
At first, an all-female production of a play where all but three of the original characters are male may seem subversive, but seeing female actresses acting out male roles without artificially deepening their voices becomes a big part of the fun. And what fun it is.
For the Shakespeare challenged among us, Much Ado is a comedy about two couples brought together, torn apart, then brought together again. Hero and Beatrice are cousins, daughter and niece, respectively of Leonato, the governor of Messina. Benedick has long had a love-hate relationship with Beatrice, full of merry barbs and acid wit. When he and Claudio, officers in the army of Don Pedro, return to Leonato’s home after triumph in battle, Beatrice resumes her war of words with Benedick. Claudio, meanwhile, courts the lovely Hero.
After that is skullduggery – some lighthearted and some tragic. Benedick’s war buds seek to trick him into believing Beatrice is in love with him, and Beatrice’s BFFs do the same to her with Benedick. An elaborate dance of attraction and repulsion begins. Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, a bastard in both senses of the word, schemes to destroy the wedding of Claudio and Hero by sowing doubts about her morality. This leads to near-catastrophic consequences.
In these dramatically intense moments, the cast really shines. An all-female cast is new to most viewers, but it is quite amazing how well they portray the sensuality and sexual tension that is so prevalent in this play. Kimberly Gilbert stands out as the delightful rogue that is Benedick, with all his self-centered rationalizations. The role requires the manic energy, and she more than delivers. Kimberly Schraf also shines as the pompous but likable Dogberry, who, it turns out is the character that stands in the way of Don Pedro’s plot, and determines if this play’s conclusion is comic or tragic.
Whether you like Shakespeare or not, this production of Much Ado About Nothing is unique and compelling. If you enjoy theatre, like to have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously, you should see it.
Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Eleanor Holdridge
Produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company
Reviewed by Steve Hallex