This staging of Much Ado About Nothing would make an excellent ice-breaker for a discussion between adolescents and adults about sexting.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Joey Frangieh. Presented by Boston Theater Company. At the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston MA. through November 2.
By Ian Thal
Though Boston Theater Company is a relatively new troupe, artistic director Joey Frangieh already seems to be setting a signature style for the company: popular classics cut to a roughly 90-minute run time, multi-media elements aplenty, and contemporary social issues highlighted. Last year’s Romeo and Juliet revolved around the inability of Democrats (Capulets) and Republicans (Montagues) to put aside their squabbles for the good of the country (Verona.) This year’s Much Ado About Nothing is about the amplification of slut-shaming through social media. At first glance, the conceit has plenty of potential; after all, the “nothing” in the title was both a mild Elizabethan-era vulgarity for the vagina as well as a pun on “noting” – that is, gossip and rumor.
Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies, with two extremely popular film adaptations in wide circulation: Kenneth Branaugh’s uneven all-star cast 1993 presentation, and Joss Whedon’s surprisingly better directed, yet mostly poorly acted (Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry being the most notable exception) from 2013.
In Frangieh’s adaptation, Don Pedro, prince of Aragon (Ben Heath), Benedick (Jeff Church), Claudio (Quinton Kappel), and Pedro’s bastard half-brother Don John (Robert Cope) are returning to Messina after a military campaign. But Messina is not ruled by Leonato, father of Hero and uncle of Beatrice, but, in this version, by Leoneta (Amy Lytle),the older sister of Hero (Lenni Kmiec) and cousin of Beatrice (Marge Dunn). Stage business establishes the gender-swap of Leonato for the younger Leonata, which offers a transparent opportunity for Don Pedro to be coupled. It is a Messina with princes, counts, lords, and ladies, but, strangely, there are no servants to fuss over the upper class or become tangled up in their plots. The gofers are replaced by technology: Leoneta keeps track of her guests with a tablet computer, and Don John creates scandal by photoshopping a portrait of Hero into some rather tame soft-core porn and distributing the images.
In a more conventional production, Claudio and Pedro at least witness a couple coupling and are misled to believe that the woman is Hero. Here they are too simple minded to know that pixels can be manipulated.
Of course, with the proliferation of digital cameras into every corner of our personal lives we are fearful about how sexual images are being used and distributed, concerned by the increasingly rapid proliferation and consumption of visuals. “Dick-pics” have destroyed political careers. Nude and semi-nude selfies, perhaps originally sent to initiate flirtation or foreplay, are posted to the web as revenge porn. Teenagers have become involved in what some media outlets have termed “high school sexting rings.”
As much as we condescend to the Elizabethan era’s jitters about female sexuality, roll our eyes at the period’s obsession with chastity, modesty, and cuckolding, these fears have not gone away. They have merely melded with or been adapted to technology, transformed by economic relations, changing sexual mores, and notions of gender equality. Despite greater equality and acceptance, the shame that comes when a young person’s earliest attempts to express his or her sexuality become the source of public ridicule has tragically led to suicide attempts both by young women and LGBT youth.
Thus this adaption, set in something resembling our modern era and using the latest technology, must be asked some essential questions: Is it believable that Claudio and Pedro would be shocked that Hero, who is clearly of marriageable age, may have had sexual relations before ever meeting Claudio? Or are they more horrified that a young aristocratic woman might have posed for pornography – with all the assumptions of class that come with it?
Overall, while Frangieh’s adaption mostly works on a textual level, there are considerable misfires in his production choices. The first act drags: largely because the cast adopts a naturalistic performance style. Only with the second act’s masque, when the performers are plunged into a world where their characters are fooled by the simplest disguises and silliest of plans do the actors shift into a more physical performance style. Once the cast members relax into the comedy the liveliness of Shakespeare’s language takes over. Church, Dunn, Heath, and Kappel all provide nimble physical pratfalls when the play demands, and Cope does a fine job of chewing what little scenery there is (populated by only a few pieces of furniture, Carol G. Deane Hall looks very much like the rehearsal room it often serves as.)
Marge Dunn, Frangieh’s one returning collaborator from last year’s Romeo and Juliet, is a particular asset. Whether Beatrice is dueling wittily against Benedick, tipsily wobbling at the masque, clowning around, raging against men who readily believe every slander that demeans a woman, or showing compassion to her wronged cousin, Dunn creates a cohesive performance. The actress gives us the full range of what is a very complex character.
Frangieh’s decision to cut the servants from this adaption, however, puts Liana Asim as Dogberry in a bind. Whereas other stage productions use double casting to fill out the night watch, Asim is asked to perform the dialogue of all the wannabe detectives by using a trio of digital devices, each displaying a goofy smiley face. So while the comedy (both physical and verbal) of Don Pedro’s men or Leoneta’s family is directed towards other characters or the ensemble (and occasionally the audience), Asim interacts chiefly with the screens of tablets and laptops. Audience members are uncertain whether Verges and the other members of Dogberry’s night watch are colleagues in law enforcement, figments of Dogberry’s imagination, or socially awkward users of social media. In fact, very little effort has been put into blocking Asim’s performance or choreographing stage business for her. This is unfortunate because neither the clowns in Shakespeare’s comedies nor the actors who play them deserve to be treated as if they were afterthoughts – especially when Dogberry’s capture of Don John is so pivotal to the plot’s resolution.
Nate Tucker’s musical settings for a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which Frangieh has inserted into this adaptation, are enjoyable, in particular a final song in which Beatrice and Benedick share a duet (Church also plays a jazzy mandolin solo). The tunes give Lenni Kmiec an opportunity to show off her musical theater, song, and dance chops – though the sudden shift in performance styles comes out of nowhere.
Perhaps, because of its relatively quick run time (the production seems so short one wonders if an intermission is really necessary) and focus on digital slut-shaming, this Much Ado About Nothing would make an excellent ice-breaker for a discussion between adolescents and adults about sexting. But that means it will also likely be of limited interest to serious Shakespearians who want a more substantial take on this perennial crowd pleaser.
Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.