By Erik Nikander
Hub Theatre’s virtual production of Much Ado About Nothing recognizes Zoom’s potential for farce and leans into it: this is a rollicking delight of a show that refuses to take itself seriously, to everyone’s benefit.
Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Directed and adapted by Bryn Boice. Staged (virtually) by Hub Theatre Company of Boston. The show will be performed live online at 7:30 p.m. tonight, November 21, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 22. All performances are Pay-What-You-Can. Go here for tickets.
Can you stage Shakespeare over Zoom? Well, of course you can gather a group of actors together and perform one of the Bard’s scripts, but… can you do it justice? At first glance, the idea raises serious doubts. There is something relaxed, catch-as-catch-can about Zoom, a just hangin’ out quality. Luckily, Hub Theatre Company’s virtual production of Much Ado About Nothing recognizes the medium’s potential for farce and leans into it: this is a rollicking delight of a show that refuses to take itself seriously, to everyone’s benefit. Let’s face it – after a year like this, we could all use a little silliness.
On a beat-by-beat story level, this Much Ado doesn’t stray far from the text — Beatrice (Lauren Elias) and Benedick (Jon Vellante) can’t be around each other without squabbling and bickering and protesting nonstop, which inspires their friends to sneakily set them up together. At the same time, the picture-perfect love story of Claudio (Jaime Hernàndez) and Hero (Micheline Wu) is put to the test when the villainous Don John (Michael John Ciszewski) accuses her of sleeping with another man. But don’t go in expecting just the same old story — director Bryn Boice has peppered the well-loved script with plenty of 2020-themed gags and dialogue tweaks that add a dash of spice to the proceedings.
The playful, irreverent nature of these jokes helps keep the show fresh throughout. Boice strikes an effective balance between the modern and the traditional — she sometimes even combines the two: “Thou art muted, Don Pedro.” Occasionally, these gags don’t make a whole lot of sense if you think about them too hard. Don John’s 1,000-ducat payment to Borachio (Lorraine Kanyike), for instance, has been updated to 1,000 bitcoins, a sum that, as of this writing, equates to over 18 million dollars. Admittedly, nitpicking like this is beside the point. In fact, silly inconsistencies like these generate an atmosphere of madcap lunacy that meshes nicely with the Bard’s tale of romantic entanglements and mistaken identities.
Boice’s virtual staging choices also go a long way toward making this Much Ado more dynamic than your average Zoom call. Rather than boxes of video feeds stacked on top of each other against a black void – a typical virtual meeting — the characters are arranged on-screen in a way that makes storytelling sense. The wedding between Claudio and Hero is laid out like a floor plan, with Rabbi Francis (Arthur Waldstein) at the top center of the screen, the young couple side by side below him, and the wedding guests arranged in rows beneath them. In another scene, Benedick “hides” (tries his best to cover up his webcam) on one side of the screen while eavesdropping on his friends who are clustered at the other side.
The production also makes amusing use of technical flourishes that add a little extra pizzazz. In a clever choice, the characters’ masquerade outfits are video filters, images of disposable face masks stuck over the actors’ mouths. Likewise, after Hero and Claudio return from their first meeting alone there are cartoon pink hearts floating above their heads. One of the Hub’s funniest inventions is the video “proof” of Hero’s infidelity, presented as secretly filmed footage that could hardly look and sound more like “fake news.” That said, the selection of background images is one of the play’s rare technical let-downs. Some are visually striking and appropriate to the scene; others look like a mish-mash of colors that were mindlessly tossed together. It’s a relatively minor oversight, but this element of the play’s visual presentation undercuts its more polished and cohesive merits.
Of course, the Hub’s technical prowess wouldn’t mean much if the cast members weren’t on their game. Fortunately, the ensemble gives it their all. Elias and Vellante are dexterous at providing just the right touch of sharp-tongued wit to Beatrice and Benedick’s spats, and Nettie Chickering’s Don Pedro is full of gregarious warmth and humor. Ciszewski’s gloriously bitchy Don John is tons of fun to watch — he sports some terrific hair to boot. Johnny Kinsman imports the air of a bumbling, self-important mall cop to his Dogberry — an inspired choice that works perfectly in the semimodernized setting. These are all thoroughly enjoyable performances, but it’s crucial not to single any out without noting how well they all work together. As a group, the cast powers through the occasional awkwardness of the Zoom format. This is an evening that is always light on its feet.
Virtual theater can be a glitchy experience, but then Much Ado About Nothing is a play built out of glitches. The play generates a constant stream of mishaps and misunderstandings, from Dogberry’s garbled way of delivering noninformation to how Benedick and Beatrice are more or less tricked into falling in love. A year as bizarre as 2020 deserves a romantic comedy that revolves around the oddities and foibles of human behavior. Hub adds a spritz of comic madness and a little technical wizardry to make this play an escapist treat tailored for our time.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.