American Shakespeare Center perfects ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

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By Kerry Lewis

On Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in Old Chapel, the American Shakespeare Center performed its touring production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

If you decided to stay in and study last Sunday night, here are a few examples of what you missed out on: men in sailor’s garb, the questioning of a Union student’s masculinity and different renditions of a variety of ’70s musical hits. The ASC combines various elements to create a pretty spectacular show — the mother of all Shakespearean romantic comedies: “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The doors opened with a bang half an hour before the show with the actors of the ASC  performing songs to get the audience seated and warmed up.

Old Chapel was packed, with audience members seated immediately in front of the stage, to its sides and up in the balcony.

The intimate atmosphere created by the seating arrangement lent itself well to Shakespeare, as did the ASC’s decision to leave the lights on during the play.

Throughout the play, the actors incorporated the audience into the production.The actors were on the same level as the audience, and surrounded by the audience — just as a troupe would have been in Shakespeare’s time.

With Shakespeare’s original staging conditions, the company did a fantastic job bringing us right into the world of “Much Ado.”

“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of William Shakespeare’s most-beloved plays.

The tale of many plots, twists and turns, tells the story of cousins Beatrice and Hero and their prospective lovers, Benedick and Claudio, respectively.

However, these couples are incredibly different. While Hero and Claudio’s relationship is a case of love at first sight (or, as the more cynical might decide, dowry at first sight), Beatrice and Benedick together are a classic example of the thin line between love and hate.

Their tendency to cross this line allows for a romantic relationship to develop.

These relationships develop throughout the play with the help of several other characters, including Prince Don Pedro, his bastard brother Don John, their acquaintances, the servants and Hero’s father, Leonato.

With such a large cast of characters, it is no wonder that the plots get twisted and tangled along the way to the wedding — a popular ending for Shakespeare’s comedies.

In this particular production, with the Shakespearean setup and the early-modern English language, came ’70s clothing, music and dancing.

The ASC used the familiar setting of the ’70s to bring forward and make relatable several themes in “Much Ado” that an audience might not notice in a more traditional Shakespearean presentation.

Beatrice, a “shrew” in Shakespeare’s time, is turned into a headstrong feminist in bell-bottoms and a close-fitting shirt. Contrastingly, the female “ideal” in “Much Ado’s” era, quiet, demure Hero, appeared in a sweet, almost doll-like, dress that emphasized her innocence and tendency towards more antiquated ways.The ’70s vibe made the play much more relevant — retro, rather than unrelatable.

The modern setting combined with the actors’ abilities to express themselves with exasperated glances at the audience or smirks at other characters, caused the language barrier that people worry about when they go to a Shakespeare play to melt away.

More could have been done with the scenes in which Beatrice and Benedick find out about the supposed love they share.

While the characters were brilliantly portrayed by the actors of the ASC, they chose to make the characters react almost exclusively with excitement and giddiness, despite the characters’ confessions of nothing but dislike, and a grudging respect at most, toward one another.

With such masterful acting at their disposal in Patrick Earl’s Benedick and Stephanie Holladay Earl’s Beatrice, it would have been interesting to see a little more confusion and a healthy skepticism in the characters.

This, however, is just an example of the way that Shakespeare left his writing open to interpretation, and the ASC used all the means available to them to make sure the audience understood the play enough to make their own interpretations.

With the ’70s take on Elizabethan England, the ASC made “Much Ado About Nothing” into a production people could relate to without sacrificing the original spirit of the play.

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