Shakespeare devotee Christopher Marino must not sleep: He teaches full time, has a family, works with Shakespeare’s texts—which is labor-intensive, to say the least. Yet, he still finds time to found a new theatre company: Alchemical Theatre of Wilmington. For their premiere, Alchemical partnered with the Lumina Festival of the Arts at UNCW to produce the Bard’s comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Of Shakespeare’s humorous works, “Much Ado” has gotten significant screen time in the last few decades. Kenneth Branagh did a star-studded production in 1993, and Joss Whedon’s 2012 modernization made Shakespeare fans out of “Firefly” groupies. Director Christopher Marino uses his director’s note to explore issues around selecting a time and place to set a production of Shakespeare. I agree with the question he asks: “What is the world of play?” For this show, he sets “Much Ado” loosely in Wilmington in 1865. As an illustration of power, both held by a victor and of one gender over another, it is quite fitting.
The show opens with the removal of a flag that looks like Fort Anderson’s Battle Flag. In its stead flies Old Glory, decorating the stage with Union bunting. The scene is set. The Union has taken the town and the Confederacy has lost. Leonato (Fred Grandy) finds himself hosting the conquering hero, Don Pedro (Thadd McQuade), whose retinue includes Count Claudio (Mike Steele) and Benedick (Ashley Strand), all dressed in Union blue. In addition, he brings as prisoners his brother, Don John (Christopher Marino), dressed in gray, Borachio (Tyler Crittenden) and Conrade (Josh Browner) in various agriculturally inspired rags. Visually, it is a reminder of the war that turned brother against brother and sets the motivation for much of what follows.
Leonato, of course, has a daughter of betrothed age, Hero (Esther Williamson), who Claudio falls for like a ton of bricks. The Prince arranges the match and the countdown to the wedding commences. But how do they amuse everyone until the big day? How about setting up confirmed bachelor Benedick with the sharp-tounged spinster-in-training, Beatrice (Lyndsay Rose Kane)? They clearly are meant for each other but both are too damn unbending to let nature take its course—but the course of true love never did run smooth. Even as Beatrice and Benedick’s friends try to bring them together, Don John and his cronies hit upon a plan to destroy Claudio’s impending marriage. Borachio has seduced Margaret (Arianna Tysinger), Hero’s maid. He convinces her to act out a scene with him at the window late at night and answer to Hero’s name. Don John brings Claudio and the Prince to the garden to watch, and they are convinced Hero is not a virgin and has been playing Claudio for a fool.
One of many choices that come out of this setting is the motivation for Don John. Frequently, he is played as a sadist who enjoys making trouble for the sake of making trouble. In this rendition, Marino and Crittenden’s hatching of the nefarious plan looks and sounds much more like the soldiers in “The Great Escape,” as they remind each other their duty is to do everything possible to undermine the enemy—even from captivity.
This is a Shakespearean comedy, so evil will be avenged—and by the clowns. Enter Dogberry (Ed Wagenseller), the constable in charge of the watch. He looks and sounds, for all the world, like a carpetbagger with newfound power he does not remotely comprehend. Dogberry is one of my favorite characters, and Wagenseller breathes new and hysterical life into him. I could watch the scenes over and over—which says a lot, considering the comedic lengths Beatrice and Benedick go to in their battles of love and war.
“There was a lot of physical comedy on that stage!” my date exclaimed with a hearty laugh. “A lot.”
“I really don’t think you can have Ashley Strand onstage and not have physical comedy,” I responded.
Both Strand and Kane left me in stitches with laughter. There cannot be a single inch of the set that does not get mauled by them climbing, “hiding” from other characters, listening in, or exploring their inner feelings in ways no psychiatrist would sanction.
“Much Ado” is very funny, but there are some serious themes explored as well. Audiences cannot sustain two hours of crescendo; there have to be moments of reflection to balance emotions and process experiences. Otherwise, the message gets lost in a continual pursuit of a laugh that has no substance.
Part of what I like about Marino’s production is he doesn’t rush the sobering moments. Standing before Hero’s grave was deeply moving—even for the audience members who knew she wasn’t dead. Tysinger’s Margaret sings a lament for Hero that is haunting. Beatrice’s call to arms on behalf of Hero’s honor is legitimate and painful—because it isn’t played for laughs but for every woman who has watched her life derailed by the double standard of behavior for men and women in our society. Though it is not as pronounced now as it was in 1865, or 1600 for that matter, it is still real. Those moments of humanity are what make the comedy funny. It is real and human rather than contrived and forced.
Adrian Varnam and Joel Lamb provide a musical accompaniment to the show that rides the waves of emotion and enhances the audience experience. From their “accidental” playing of Dixie at the beginning of the show to the funeral dirge, they bring an atmosphere that adds aural depth and color. Using bluegrass and old-time country as a starting point, they riff on songs that the audience will recognize. They use the music as almost an additional character conversing with the actors onstage, but without overwhelming or upstaging. It is a delicate balance but executed beautifully.
I am a very opinionated fan of the greatest writer the English language has ever known. Making the Bard’s work and language accessible to people is a chief aim of live performance. But giving full reign to the depth, meaning and brilliance of scripts that reveal the full range of the human experience in one evening should be the goal. This cast achieves it seamlessly. Of the three major Shakespeare productions that have been produced in town this year, this one, without a doubt, is my favorite.