Come, come, we are friends: let's have a dance ere
we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts
and our wives' heels. — Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing
In a cheeky twist on the title of Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, The UofSC Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of this First Folio play actually creates quite a bit of ado, or fuss, about a fairly straight-forward connivance—which was surely Shakespeare’s intention given that he wrote an entire play about a pair of vengeful practical jokes. But while this reviewer is nothing if not a fan of whimsy and irreverence, giving this production exceedingly high scores on the application of both, for some viewers the added bells and whistles might feel a bit gimmicky in places. That said, I had more fun at this production than at any of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve had the good fortune of seeing performed anywhere other than at the Globe or the Sam Wannamaker playhouse in London.
The key to the success of this production is its accessibility. And it is precisely the extraneous bonuses—the use of pop music, the incongruous costuming by Kristy Leigh Hall, the full-company pop-up choreography by Andre Megerdichian—that break through what sometimes seem to be immovable obstacles in the way of fully appreciating a play that was written in 1599 a full four hundred and twenty years later.
The reality is that enjoying Shakespeare requires work for even the above-average audience member. From the early modern English language, which was less than 100 years old when Shakespeare created the majority of his works (and subsequently recorded a few thousand words for the first time in history), to the patriarchal influences on casting, plot, and whether characters live happily ever after or not, fully appreciating Shakespeare can surely be enhanced by tactics and ploys that make the purpose of the play more meaningful to the audience.
Perhaps director Dustin Whitehead had this in mind when he cast against gender several times in this production.
In the original play, Don John is the bastard brother, if you’ll pardon the anachronism, of Don Pedro (Nicholas Good). Don John, played with just the right amount of eye-rolling, cynicism, and indifference by Beck Chandler, carries a chip on his shoulder and likes to cause trouble where there is none. It is Don John’s interferences in the happiness of Claudio, a follower of Don Pedro, as he attempts to court and marry Hero, the daughter of Leonato who is the governor of Messina, a friend of Don Pedro’s, and the party’s host for a month of post-war R and R.
Through the machinations of Don John and his wicked sidekicks Borachio, played like sleaze in a leisure suit by Jacob Wilson, and Conrade, played against gender by Kinzie Correll, Claudio (Cameron Giordano) is led to believe that Hero (Ezri Fender) has been unfaithful. In a real dick move, Claudio waits until the wedding to accuse his betrothed of her dishonor, making the kind of scene that, in the 21st century, might more likely result in a well-aimed kick to the groin by the bride-to-be, but in Shakespeare’s day ostensibly causes Hero to fall out, faint, and, for all we know as we’re watching the play, die.
Here is where the cleverness of casting against gender, consequently creating a far more accessible message, comes in. Rather than cast Leonato as a man, Whitehead casts Leonata as a woman and has her played with great passion by Caroline Clarke. While at first Leonata condemns her daughter to death for her perceived transgression, the character ultimately becomes devoted to proving the innocence of her daughter and in what would have been read, with a male in the role, as a patriarchal defense of a family’s bloodline, the act becomes a feminist defense of a young woman’s integrity by a female champion.
Along those same lines, it is Friar Francis, played by Susan Swavely, who believes and defends Hero all along, and it is Constable Dogberry and partner, Verges, played brilliantly and also against gender by Cassidy Spencer and Lily Heidari respectively, who capture Conrade and Borachio and bring them to justice before Claudio and Don Pedro, clearing Hero’s name.
Consequently we have a version of the conflict resolution in Much Ado in which women band together to defend another unjustly accused woman, and I’m not sure what could be more 2019 than that.
It should be noted that in an overarching subplot of the play, which most might argue typically eclipses the primary plot, Beatrice, who is the niece of Leonata, engages in a classic Hepburn and Tracy/Muldur and Scully/Ross and Rachel romance with Lord Benedick, a soldier from Padua who fought in Pedro’s army. The couple, strongly played by Jordan Postal as Beatrice and Anthony Currie as Benedick, carry the weight of the characters well and shine particularly brightly during a musical interlude, set to an instrumental rendition of Lennon and McCartney’s “Come Together.” This is one of those places where Whitehead’s bonus bells and whistles really pay off. It is in this added intermezzo that the audience gets to witness the push and pull and all the acrobatics of a real love affair working its way into existence. Whereas Claudio declares his love for Hero and she basically says, Ok – Why Not? Beatrice and Benedick are strong-minded individuals who not only aren’t looking for love, they don’t want to identify themselves when love finds them. The audiences who see this version of Much Ado come away seeing the Beatrice and Benedick romance as real and meaningful rather than almost spiteful and trivial when depicted by dialogue alone.
It is, in many ways, the music that makes this performance progress particularly cohesively for a cast of primarily undergrad actors. And the stand out actors are the ones who begin the production in another added scene when Spencer and Heidari take the stage as the comically inept watchwomen sweeping up, preparing for the day, and ultimately singing and accompanying themselves on piano, as do several characters throughout the play. Having seen these young women perform lead roles this summer in Montgomery at Trustus Theatre it was a gift to see them together again. Spencer rises well to the traditionally comical challenge the character of Dogberry demands and Heidari is right there with her.
The lone MAT student, Amber Coulter, in the role of Margaret, also offers a stand-out performance, of note not only due to her comic timing but her confidence and ease of delivery, as well. Having performed in seven shows on the main stage at USC, (this reviewer remembers her from Top Girls and The Crucible), Coulter is a fine example of the kind of theatre artist the UofSC Department of Theatre and Dance can produce.
Though not a perfect performance—Benedick could project more, for example—the choreographed (or were they blocked?) numbers made up in enthusiasm for what they lacked in technique, and Michael Taylor in the role of Ursula wore a skirt like nobody’s business. Audience members laughed, tapped their feet, and smiled broadly at the closing number. It was a joyous performance and, at the end, we could ask for little more.
The performance runs Thursdays through Sundays until November 9th at Longstreet Theatre and tickets are available at tickets.vendini.com
Cindi Boiter is the editor of Jasper Magazine and the executive director of the Jasper Project.