Any company approaching Much Ado About Nothing faces a number of difficult hurdles. It features one of the most passive, flat, one-note villains in any Shakespearean play. It threads slapstick farcical plot lines into an otherwise very serious story about betrayal, wrongdoing, and dishonor. And it features two characters, Beatrice and Benedick, who are so beloved by most audiences that any actor who dares to portray them is constantly pitted against the audience’s very high expectations.
NextStop Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing rose so valiantly to these challenges that I was genuinely blown away.
In full disclosure, Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare play, and may even top the list as my favorite play full stop. It’s one of the shows that made me fall in love with theatre. I have seen this show so many times that I know all of the emotional beats like an old song. I know the common choices and common fixes directors make to overcome the aforementioned hurdles, and at this point I watch most productions the same way most sports fans watch their favorite team – looking to see what the director did with it. For me, it’s like watching a well loved movie. I know which characters I prefer to watch in each scene. Whose reactions to look for. It’s my favorite show, sure, but at this point seeing Much Ado is often predictable and routine for me.
Not in this production. Abigail Isaac Fine’s directorial choices continuously surprised me, bringing new life and new depth to a story and to characters that I thought I knew completely.
NextStop sets this Much Ado in a 1960’s Messina, Italy, an intricate and wonderfully immersive set (by scenic designer Elizabeth McFadden). It’s always a dangerous choice to try to modernize Shakespeare as so many of the key plot points (the dishonor of being a bastard child, challenges of honor, pre-marital virtue) start to dissolve in their potency when taken out of the context of the original setting. The audience’s understanding of the show took a hit from this, if the conversation at the bathroom line during intermission about Don John the bastard’s apparently lack of motivation to be evil is indicative of anything.
But it is, perhaps, a worthwhile trade off to have the vibrancy of costume designer Stephanie Fisher’s period costumes, and to have the outspoken and independent Beatrice (Kari Ginsburg) put into an era where feminism was experiencing a resurgence. She fits perfectly in this context, being not only the only woman outwardly questioning the idea of marriage, but also the only woman on stage outfitted in pants. It was never a heavy handed directorial choice, but was just one of many clever nuances woven throughout. Also, the hilarity of watching Benedick (Jonathan Lee Taylor) dash around the set in an attempt to hide from Don Pedro (James Finley), Leonato (Allen McRae), and Claudio (Ben Stoll) was exceptionally heightened by outfitting him in microscopically small 1960’s style short shorts (please, please let those come back in style).
High praise must be given to Abigail Isaac Fine’s direction and blocking. As much is said about the relationships between the characters through the way they physically interact with each other as is said in the text. She has also added a handful of brief, fully silent scenes – most of which deeply add to the experience of the play (although, an early one with Don John did leave me slightly confused).
The acting in this show is superb. Each actor shows so much attention to emotional nuance that I’m certain I could see it again and still learn more about each character with each additional viewing. Brittany Marz’s Hero was innocent, sweet and endearing without being mindlessly obedient. Benjamin Stoll’s Claudio was played so earnestly that never once, not even during the scene where (spoilers) he condemns Hero, did I doubt that he was the good, kind man so beloved by all the other characters. And Allen McRae brought life and humor into Leonato, a character I had never previously had an opinion about, but now ranks among my favorites in this play. Even the smaller parts were expertly played, such as Gary DuBreuil’s incredibly engaging Borachio or Valerie Adams Reigsbee’s Margaret.
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Much Ado About Nothing
closes February 12, 2017
Details and tickets
I cannot say enough good things about Jonathan Lee Taylor’s Benedick and Kari Ginsburg’s Beatrice. The humor, the depth, the timing they brought to these characters is nothing short of astonishing, and some of the best damn acting I have seen since I moved to DC. They made these characters seem so real and so natural that I frequently forgot that they were speaking in an archaic form of English. They mastered not only the slapstick humor and wry wit needed to accurately portray Beatrice and Benedick, but the serious emotional nuance needed to give these characters depth and make their somewhat sudden break from scorn and snark into delicate emotional intimacy believable. I have frequently wanted a sequel to this play that is centered wholly around Beatrice and Benedick, but these two make me want an entire series of sequels.
My only criticism of the show is in the choice to double cast some of the main actors as the night’s watch, the incredibly slapstick comedic relief team who open the second act. On the one hand, I was so happy to see Robert Pike (who plays the stoic villain Don John) given a chance to show off his incredible range as Dogberry. However, even I was briefly jarred and confused as to why Don John was suddenly so affable and animated. It wasn’t immediately clear that this was an entirely different, unrelated character.
Aside from that one disappointing mechanic, NextStop Theatre Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing now tops the list as my favorite production. It creates an approachable, vibrant, nuanced and fresh take on Shakespeare’s “original romantic comedy” that would delight everyone, from the hardest veteran of the Shakespeare’s works to those who might otherwise be too scared to approach the Bard.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Director: Abigail Isaac Fine. Featuring: Kari Ginsburg, Jonathan Lee Taylor, Allen McRae, Brittany Martz, James Finley, Benjamin Stoll, Robert Pike, Lisa Hil-Corley, Mimsi Janis, Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Gary DuBreuil, Mo O’Rourke. Scenic Design: Elizabeth McFadden. Costume Design: Stephanie Fisher. Lighting Design: Jonathan Abolins. Sound Deisgn: Reid May. Stage Manager: Laura Moody. Asst Stage Manager/Wardrobe: Max Frost. Scenic Charge: Brittany Mongold. Master Electrician: Jonathan Abolins. Props Coordinator: Donna Reinhold. Reviewed by: RK Pendergrass