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Festival’s “Much Ado”
Is Really Something

Ted Morrissey

Many of Shakespeare’s plays have risen and fallen (and risen again) in the esteem of audiences over the centuries, sometimes due to an era’s climate and sometimes due to theatergoers’ changing tastes. But not the comedy Much Ado about Nothing, which has been consistently beloved since its opening in (probably) 1598. The Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of Much Ado reminds us why the play has been delighting audiences without fail for more than 400 years.

Director Lisa Gaye Dixon gives us an updated take on the story that revolves around two pairs of love matches set in Messina, Italy. Dixon’s staging is as delightful as any of its innumerable predecessors – as well as deceptively clever. I attended the July 12 performance on a picture-perfect evening in the open-air Ewing Theater. Even on a Tuesday the performance was well attended by an appreciative audience.

The basic double plot involves the wooing of Hero, daughter of the governor of Messina, by Count Claudio, who has just returned from war; and the tricking of Beatrice, niece to the governor, and Benedick, brother in arms to Claudio, into acknowledging their mutual affection. Meanwhile, there is an over-the-top comical element that is intertwined with the matchmaking involving Dogberry, master constable of Messina, and his watchmen, especially Verges, the elderly leader of the watch.

It seems that Shakespeare started with the Hero-Claudio plot (adapted from numerous sources) and added to it the more original Beatrice-Benedick plot (a finer tuned version of the sort of relationship he played with in the earlier The Taming of the Shrew via the characters Katherina and Petruchio). From the beginning, the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick has tended to overshadow the more traditional Hero and Claudio dynamic, setting up challenges of different sorts for any actors who take on the roles. Beatrice and Benedick must achieve the fiery chemistry that audiences have come to expect, and Hero and Claudio must make sure their tandem relationship is not wholly eclipsed by the other couple’s lively courtship.

The Festival’s talented actors meet the challenges from opening to close. Madeline Calais’ Hero is sprightly and attractively mischievous; while Riley Capp’s Claudio is magnetically likable, especially in the scenes that make use of his finely tuned comedic skills. As such, the couple hold their own in Much Ado’s plot.

Nevertheless, as has been happening for four centuries, Beatrice and Benedick are the show-stealers with marvelous performances from Jessica Dean Turner and Brandon Burditt, who, indeed, create the on-stage chemistry that’s been winning over audiences since the days of the original Globe Theatre. We can’t help but develop a bit of a crush ourselves on the couple who are determined to disavow their feelings for one another. Key to the roles is mastering Shakespeare’s sophisticated banter, and Turner’s and Burditt’s verbal skills are richly on display, along with physical presences that command the stage when called for.

Beatrice’s and Benedick’s complex dialogue—filled with joking wordplay—is contrasted with the comic malapropisms of constable Dogberry, handled with gusto by Dan Matisa, whose clownish antics are a highlight of the production, especially when paired with the elderly watchman Verges, played with effective understatement by Henson Keys. In the Festival staging, Dogberry’s bombastic quality is complemented by Verge’s more subtle comic touches.

In an unusual casting twist, the role of Leonato, governor of Messina, is played by Quetta Carpenter as Leonata. Carpenter carries off the matriarchal role with ease and contributes substantially to the success of the matchmaking scenes in particular, bringing to them her own brand of warmth and humor. Other performances of special note include Rafael Untalan as Don Pedro (pivotal to the Hero-Claudio match), Christian Castro as both the drunkard Borachio and the sage Friar Francis (roles which are as disparate as one can imagine, which underscores Castro’s versatility). The unvarnished villain of Much Ado, Don John, is nicely rendered (well, the opposite of nicely) by Jake Blagburn.

A tip of the hat, too, to Leela Watts, a member of the watch who also had to step in as Antonia, Leonata’s sister, in her role as understudy. The likely last-minute change was seamless except for unavoidable costuming conflicts (such stuff just adds to the charm of live theater). Access the complete 2022 program here.

Speaking of costuming, Dixon and costume designer Rachel Pabst Barnett use the element to great effect in the production. Instead of Renaissance Italian, the Festival’s production uses a clothing style reminiscent of the early twentieth century, perhaps the era of the Great War. Besides adding the whimsical touches of women’s long and colorful gowns and men’s patterned suits, costuming helps to communicate important aspects of characterization. The action of the play begins with the conclusion of war; therefore, we are introduced to the male characters in their military uniforms (again à la World War One). They quickly shed their khaki warrior garb and don light-colored suits, suggesting their eagerness to turn away from the death and destruction of war toward the joyful rebuilding of society—thus the emphasis on matchmaking (and lovemaking).

However, Don John and his nefarious allies are unable to step into this brighter peacetime world. Still stuck in their wartime psyches, they neglect to shed their uniforms for festive civilian attire. Don John, the chief villain and architect of cruel slander, wears his military regalia and medals throughout. Much more could be said of costuming in the Festival production, which is brilliant in both its concept and execution.

Another intriguing aspect of this Much Ado has to do with the set itself, particularly a large fountain center-stage which the players are constantly washing in, splashing in, sitting on, standing on, hiding behind … it is practically a character in itself. After a single viewing, I can’t say that I fully understand its purpose, but it seems to be associated with rebirth and renewal, as characters cleanse themselves of old attitudes and out-of-date ways of regarding each other. The fountain may be inspired by Leonata’s assertion that “the wide sea / Hath drops too few to wash … clean” a character whose reputation has “fallen into a pit of ink,” an assertion that is emphasized by other references to washing in the play.

In any event, the fountain is a clever and deceptively complex centerpiece, brought to life by scenic designer José Manuel Diaz-Soto, assisted by Emma Brutman.

Another clever aspect of the production is Dixon’s use of music. Shakespeare’s audiences expected song and dance in their plays, so the dramatist included such elements, even in his darkest tragedies. At times these elements can seem tangential, inserted only because of audience expectation. However, music is integral to Much Ado about Nothing, with the song and dance numbers figuring into the action of the play similarly to what we experience in modern musicals. Throughout Shakespeare’s canon we have the song lyrics, but the musical scores are a mystery.

In a bold move, Dixon has stripped nearly all of the song-and-dance routines from Much Ado and instead uses pre-recorded music that functions as today’s soundtracks, bridging scenes, setting mood, and reinforcing characterization. It is something of a surprise, but as it turns out a highly effective one. M. Anthony Reimer is credited as composer/sound designer for the production.

This uniquely engaging and supremely entertaining production of Much Ado about Nothing will run through July and the first week of August, alternately with King Lear (directed by Robert Quinlan). Fans of the Bard—and fans of enjoying themselves—must catch a performance before the season is over.

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Ted Morrissey‘s novel excerpts, short stories, poems, critical articles, reviews, and translations have appeared in more than 100 publications, among them Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, and Southern Humanities Review. His most recent novel, The Artist Spoke, won the Maincrest Media Award in Literary Fiction.

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