Much Ado About Nothing
Shakespeare on the Green
6/22-26, Fri. – Sun., 8 p.m.
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
Nature’s perfect timing instigated a few flashes of lightning in Sunday’s performance of “Much Ado About Nothing,” just as Hero denounced the slander of her overzealous tongue on her “deceased” lover, Claudio. That’s the beauty of watching Shakespeare on the Green: Even nature reacts to the Brit bard’s ever-dramatic words.
Now in its 19th year celebrating the man who founded much of the English language (thank you, “fantastical,” “enigmatical” and “good morrow”), Wilmington’s theatre company presents the 16th century play directed by a 21st century seasoned actor, Steve Vernon. Vernon has twisted the tale rightfully so, allowing gender reversals from the original script. His version of “Much Ado” portrays tribes of women, the Amazons, who rule in war and conquer Europe. Where Don John and Don Pedro once existed, Donna Jean (Gina Gambony) and Donna Petra (Linda Carlisle Markas) take their places. A male Ursus (Caylan McKay) replaces the female Ursula, and the governor, Leonato, becomes a governess, Leonata (Melissa Stanley). Practically every role in Vernon’s piece is switched from the original aside from a few, such as our main lovers, Claudio (James Hartner) and Hero (Heather Howard), and Benedick (Alex Wharff) and Beatrice (Christy Grantham); however, male lines are given to women, and vice-versa.
Though off to a slow start—mainly because it takes adjusting to the outdoors, where duck calls and froggy warbles become the soundtrack, and swarming bugs are the concessions of the day—the play, like every Shakespearean piece, takes on all of the theatrical elements that give live performances their moxie. “Much Ado” revels in romanticism, comedy, tragedy, over-the-top drama and a host of trickery. The plot is none-too-simple, but not as intimidating as many may assume of Shakespeare. (What a thrill it was to hear a mother ask her daughter before the show, “So, remind me what the play’s about again? It’s been so long since I’ve read it.” The child responded impressively and so succinctly, I almost considered her synopsis for this review.) Though watching the play takes a little more focus than usual, especially with the interference of outdoor obstacles, the outcome pays off with gratifying laughter and delight.
The plot takes place in Messina, Sicily, where women rule the roost. They commandeer all decision-making in their communities, legally or otherwise. From granting permission to marry and arresting n’er do wells, to demanding penance where it’s due and protecting their families, women have the final say. The feminist in me praises this choice against Shakespeare’s oft-written male dominance. Just the same, I raise an eyebrow at its cliché. Considering the gossipy nature of “Much Ado,” critics could easily say, “Of course women would rule its helm!” (But we know what people say about critics, ahem…)
The lovers, Hero and Claudio, are first up to match. Heather Howard as Hero brings a doe-eyed innocence to love, so overblown and exasperated, it seems customary for everyone to endure. She is quite forcefully a wonder to watch, and she had me questioning my own relationship upon exit: Shouldn’t everyone feel as bowled over by the prospect of love and love lost? I thought. That’s Shakespeare’s magnificence of passion shining bright. Howard flies off the hip in a vortex of emotion, which plays perfectly to the bard’s words.
Hero’s love, Claudio, falls from grace—and quietly so. Played by James Hartner, the character gets lost in the throes thanks to his rambunctious counterparts. Gina Gambony’s Donna Jean brings the “plain dealin’ villain” to life with punctuated animation, expressive in every slithering lie. Gambony makes it clear this isn’t her first rodeo, as she sets a scheme in place to make Hero think Claudio was disloyal with another woman. Such trickery gets perpetuated by Conrade and Borachia, played yet again by females, Tamica Katzmann and Katelyn Rondinaro respectively. I like to refer to these two as “the snaky sisters,” mainly because nothing but contempt comes across in their dual scenes. The choice to dress the femme fatales in black lace is smart; their sex appeal is evident regardless of dialogue. Hats off to Katzmann, also the wardrobe mistress.
The real word warriors of the show come from Beatrice and Benedick, the yin to each other’s yang. They’re set up by Hero, Leonata and Donna Petra, all of whom see them both as loquacious, to the point that “if they were married, they would talk themselves mad!” Alex Wharff as Benedick bestows sensitivity onto his male character with an almost embarrassing remorse that veers the fork of comical. Despite the futile attempt to keep the show hailing women, Wharff stands out among the cast with most commemoration.
His counterpart, Beatrice, will be relatable to many modern-day females who proudly wear a demanding badge of independence and strength. Christy Grantham makes Beatrice quick-witted and steadfast in her original doctrine against marriage. However, flattery, true or false, always turns the heart. Despite Grantham’s act of reluctance, she makes her character’s descent into a romantic seem natural rather than impetuous or hypocritical.
Other roles deserving of praise include Linda Carlisle Markas as Donna Petra, the nicer of the two Donnas. She commands with grace and stands beside her clan with boldness. Melissa Stanley gives Governess Leonata a regality most grounded by her stature. Aside from looking eerily like Robin Wright, Stanley’s matronly rule has an intimidation not to be questioned.
The set of the production could be the backdrop to practically any Shakespeare piece. Considering the small amount of funds the company has to continue presenting their shows annually, it’s impressive, thanks to Cherri McKay heading the scenic design, and Geoff Weatherwax and Ron Smith building it. Hand-painted panels of foliage are speckled by real ferns and a few faux leaves elsewhere. A boulder here and a staircase there give height and depth for Beatrice and Benedick to run about during spy scenes.
The costumes were interesting; however, I suggest audiences to sit close to the stage to catch the nuances and not to miss a word of the action. Masculine touches attempt their mark with black and brown accents in heavy boots, hard wire and clunky leather belts, set off by large metal buckles. Drawings of tribal tattoos cover the ladies’ arms and legs, while a Michael Stipe-like blue stripe brands Hero a little more funky than the rest of the bunch. Yet, flowy chiffons and floral prints, along with shiny iridescent fabrics make the woman’s stamp clear. It would have been nice to see velvet used beyond Benedick’s costume—to me, a non-gender fabric—but in such heat I can understand the refrain.
Speaking of which, I remain amazed the actors did not pour buckets of sweat and swipe at bugs throughout the performance. Kudos to them for braving the beast of nature while bringing to life one of its other forces. Shakespeare has an affect on us all thousands of years after his reign. Only today, we can come armed with bug spray before taking on his number one topic: that crazy little thing called love.