Much Ado about Nothing.
Presented by the Orlando Shakespeare Theater at the Margeson Theatre in Orlando, Florida. March 11-April 25, 2009. Directed by Dennis Lee Delaney. Set Design by Bob Phillips. Costume Design by Kristina Tollefson. With Darren Bridgett (Benedick), Marni Penning (Beatrice), Steven Patterson (Don Pedro), Armistead Johnson (Claudio), Joe Vincent (Leonato), Chris Mixon (Dogberry), Brittney Rentschler (Hero,) Kyle Crowder (Don John), Nathan Gregory (Borachio), Desiree Bacala (Margaret), Brad Roller (Conrade), Bob Dolan (Antonio), Anne Hering (Ursula), Bob Lipka (Verges), Andrew Knight (Balthasar), and others.
Orlando Shakespeare Theatre's Much Ado about Nothing sparkled like a diamond; its light-hearted, very physical approach delighted audience members and created a charming and delicious interpretation of this witty comedy. Set in post-World War II Italy, the production employed costumes, music, and props to create a polarity, pitting the American liberators against the Italian Fascists. The play opened somberly, its set--a ruined villa with broken and toppled objects littering the stage--suggesting the aftermath of war. The cast entered and began to clean up with a sad air of resignation; the mood quickly transformed to happiness when Don Pedro and his cohorts returned from war in a glorious military entrance. Costume designer Kristina Tollefson dressed the returning troops in two variations of military dress: Don Pedro, Benedick, and Claudio donned American-style khaki uniforms, complete with Eisenhower jackets and side caps, while the "bad boy" contingent--Don John, Borachio, and Conrade--wore the black shirts and berets of the Fascist militia under Mussolini, effectively "otheting" them and suggesting an image of corrupt power. Even for audience members who may not have noticed this detail, the difference in color and style was apparent: Don John and friends were obviously not aligned with the rest of the group. Costumes contributed enormously to this production, not only in separating the good guys from the bad. Garments and accessories clearly evoked the late 1940s, from Beatrice's snood to Ursula's top-tied kerchief with I-Love-Lucy red curls peeping out in front. Leonato presented an elegant appearance in his beautifully draped cream linen suit, while Margaret made flirtatious use of her off-the shoulder flouncy top.
As the returning soldiers joined the rest of the cast, the characters waved Italian and American flags in celebration; Don Pedro waved an American flag, and Don John pointedly handed him an Italian one, thereby establishing the friction between the two brothers. Music also helped create a sense of time and place, as American war-era songs alternated with older Italian music. Thus "Sing, Sing, Sing," "In the Mood," and "Pistol-Packin' Mama"--all popular wartime hits--were interspersed with "O Mio Babbino Caro," "Santa Lucia," and "Funiculi, Funicula," representing outdated, more traditional music. In fact, the residents of Messina embraced the American culture, joyfully dancing the Lindy hop, waving the stars and stripes, and wagering American dollars for fun. In 2.3, when Balthasar sang a tune at Don Pedro's request, it was done in a delightfully forties-era style, complete with Andrews-sisters style backup singers--including Don Pedro and Leonato--and an old-fashioned stand-up microphone.
Of course, the value of any production of Much Ado can be measured by the performances of its Benedick and Beatrice, and Darren Bridgett and Marni Penning did not disappoint. Bridgett played the role with an endearing vulnerability; his Benedick, never cocky, remained unsure of himself and seemed like a schoolboy when he suspected that Beatrice just might care for him after all. He delivered his "This can be no trick" speech with self-deprecating humor and sly wit. The thrust stage at the Margeson Theatre allows the actors to interact with the audience, and Bridgett took full advantage of this feature, drawing us into his delightful discovery. However, Bridgett's most memorable moments came earlier in the scene when he was hiding from Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato; during this episode, he displayed an astonishing talent for physical comedy in a hilarious sequence that had him performing gymnastic feats on a ladder, slithering on his belly across the stage, and huddling by an audience member's legs. Marni Penning showed her comic chops in the scene that followed, hiding behind a fruit cart and emerging, Carmen-Miranda like, with bananas and grapes on her head. Overall, this Beatrice was much more sure of herself than Benedick and often seemed to have the upper hand. Perhaps the most important and difficult scene for the actors occurs in act four. Here Bridgett and Penning conjured powerful chemistry, their mutual admissions and tender moments building up to a sensual embrace interrupted by Beatrice's entreaty, "Kill Claudio." When Benedick finally capitulated, we felt his sorrow at losing his friendship with Claudio even while we shared Beatrice's sadness for her cousin Hero.
The Shakespearean clown--in this case Dogberry--often remains enigmatic to modern audiences; his humor seems outdated, and not many actors can bridge the gap. Chris Mixon, however, embodied the role like a reincarnation of Will Kemp. Wiry and agile, Mixon played Dogberry with absolute authenticity; even his goofy facial expressions as he entered and exited the stage were comical, and his interpretation of 4.2 ("I am an ass") was uproarious. The stage design mandated that set changes took place in flail view of the audience, and director Dennis Lee Delaney used Dogberry and his minions as stagehands, a prudent and entertaining decision. Mixon even made the act of moving benches and flowerpots seem funny.
However, this decidedly comedic production did not ignore or attempt to lighten the darkness of 4.1. Claudio accused Hero of infidelity with vituperative rage, and Don Pedro--just as angry as his friend--backed him up; it was a vicious two-on-one attack. Claudio's frenzied aggressor differed poignantly from the lovesick swain whom he had embodied earlier, and Hero's palpable pain at this transformation was deeply moving. Desiree Bacala did a fine job as Margaret in this scene; as the tale of Hero with a "ruffian at her chamber window" (4.1.91) unfolded, a slow realization came over her, and she sheepishly stepped forward to admit her own complicity; however, Don John, anticipating her actions, approached her menacingly and intimidated her into silence. Audiences and readers often find Margaret unsympathetic for not admitting her part in the conspiracy and thereby rescuing Hero, but this bit of stage business largely acquitted Margaret of blame.
This excellent production of Much Ado put its own spin on the play while remaining faithful to the text. By setting the play in the late 1940s, the production team was able to impart a sense of fun and nostalgia through costuming, music, and by paying homage to entertainment icons of the era. At the same time, the play conveyed a sense of foreboding in the presentation of the historically accurate Camicie Nere, Mussolini's black-shirred militia.
ANN MCCAULEY BASSO, University of South Florida, Tampa