One of the joys of Seattle summers is the opportunity to enjoy a bit of Shakespeare al fresco. This is probably as close to enjoying Shakespeare’s works as they would have been performed in his open-air theatres in London as we can get. Wooden O, the outdoor performance wing of Seattle Shakespeare, puts on these plays for free in many local parks. It’s not just Seattle neighborhoods that get the benefit; the plays are performed in Lynwood, Issaquah, Bellevue, Mercer Island, Tacoma and Des Moines. But going back to the play itself, what is Much Ado About Nothing, all about?
While not the most familiar play to roll off people’s tongues, Much Ado, once viewed will hold a special place in your – “Oh how I love Shakespeare” corner of your heart. Much Ado is at once a comedy of errors, a love story, a near tragedy and a giant battle of gendered wits. The main themes, as in most of Shakespeare’s comedies are love, marriage and relations between the sexes. Basically, a man and woman both sworn off marriage and each other, end up finding they can’t live without each other. Along their journey, the harsher realities of relationships gone wrong, threaten to undermine all happiness. When a bitter trickster plots to undermine someone’s wedding plans by falsely branding a woman as unfaithful, relationship hell breaks loose. Not only is the woman deserted by her fiancé but the woman’s own father threatens to disown her for bringing shame on him. Gendered inequities become painfully apparent. Eventually wrongs are put right, lovers are reunited and love and marriage eventually win out in the end. While the plot sounds familiar the unique drawcards in this play Much Ado About Nothing are the strength of the individual characters and their unforgettable interactions.
The happy, intellectual tension in the play is between the two main characters. Beatrice is the steely minded, intelligent, outspoken and strong female lead. She is played with taut and sparkly precision by Keiko Green. Beatrice is never afraid to question and confront the men in her life. Mouthing off in a witty manner about men to her Uncle Leonato, Beatrice displays the agility of her mind. Words are her weapons. When a straight-talking messenger makes the bland observation that “the gentleman is not in your book,” Beatrice replies acerbically. “No and if he were, I would burn my study.”
That “gentleman” referred to is her “merry war” rival, Benedick. Benedick is played with ripe humor, clarity and joy by MJ Sieber. And Benedick gives as good as he gets. He is a worthy word dueler for Beatrice. A great lover of women but allergic to marriage Benedick says of Beatrice: “If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star. I would not marry her, though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed. She would have made Hercules turn the spit, and have left his club to make the fire too.”
While much of the humor resembles this witty strain there’s still a place in Much Ado for slapstick. The plot introduces slapstick elements with the spy in the garden convention. A character secretly overhears a conversation about themselves. Unbeknownst to that character they have fallen for the conversation hook line and sinker. The conversation was a set up to lure them into believing and acting on something they wouldn’t have done on their own. This overhearing technique facilitates the two main love stories of the play. These scenes are well executed and just as funny to watch as to listen to. Watch out for a golf ball that seems to jump into a cup by itself.
The other slapstick characters are Dogberry and his cohorts Verges and the other night watch crew. Dogberry is played with skill and lots of fun by George Mount. Dogberry and company inadvertently uncover the evil plotters. Dogberry manages this feat despite his bumbling behavior, his mangling of the language and giant holes in his understanding.
Other characters to watch out for are the over- eager lover, Claudio played by Spencer Funk. Shakespeare wrote Claudio as an exaggerated, over- emotional character and Spencer delivers. Alex Matthews puts on a rousing performance as Don Pedro, the confident and good-humored American army general. Meranda Long puts on a convincing performance as Hero,the falsely accused bride-to be. One thing that I missed from the original play was Margaret’s wit. Margaret (played by Hannah Rachel Tamkin) is Hero’s lady’s maid. Shakespeare gives her more prominence as an outspoken, bawdy, humorous character but I noticed this version of the play didn’t promote Margaret.
A word about the setting off this play. Shakespeare set the play in the mediaeval town of Italy, Messina. However, this version of Much Ado transports the play to an English town amid WWII, including both American and English soldiers and English civilians. This update adds closer- to- our- era whimsy with the women dressed in wide-skirted dresses, chunky lace up heels, thick skin color tights and tightly rolled up tunnel hair. A casual cricket match and a cozy-covered teapot round out the English country scene. Upcoming tension in the play is signaled by the unnerving sound of the air-raid siren. The atmosphere from this era is further cemented with music from the time. The play ends on a lovely whole cast rendition of the WWII song, “There’ll be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover.” A shout out to the scenic designer, Craig B. Wollam, costume designer, Jocelyne Fowler and sound designers, stage mangers and more for making this play special. This review wouldn’t be complete without congratulating the director Jon Kretzu for this lively, funny and very pleasing interpretation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare. Produced by Seattle Shakespeare and Wooden O. At various outdoor locations in Seattle, Lynwood, the Eastside and Tacoma during the summer. July 6th– August 6th, 2017. See website for details. http://www.seattleshakespeare.org/shows/much-ado-about-nothing-2017/ . Free admission but donations welcomed.