Review: Shakespeare for a Younger Generation in Milwaukee Rep’s Much Ado About Nothing
One of Shakespeare’s most-popular romantic comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, comes thrillingly to life on the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s largest stage. As explained in pre-performance remarks by Artistic Director Mark Clements, this production marks the Rep’s continued commitment to classic theater. Much Ado is the only Shakespeare offering in its current season. Judging from the full house on opening night, audiences seem ready to explore the myriad shenanigans that comprise this much-beloved play.
As its name implies, Much Ado is what one might call, “Shakespeare Lite.” It has an easy-to-follow plot, a host of colorful minor characters, and is based more on misdirection and human folly than darker forces at work (i.e., there are no bloody stabbings, midnight conjuring, mental breakdowns, ghostly appearances, etc. that add sizzle to many other Shakespeare shows). In Much Ado, most of Shakespeare’s language can be “acted out” with facial expressions and gestures, so there’s no need to focus on every piece of dialogue. Those who may feel occasionally “lost” in the language (as did my millennial-aged guest), needn’t have fretted. It only takes a few moments for everything to come into focus.
In an attempt to attract younger crowds to Shakespeare, director Laura Braza sets this version in the Pacific Northwest (i.e., Seattle) in 1991. This time was the height of the “grunge” era, with bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden filling the radio airwaves.
Taking things a bit further, Music Composer/Director Dan Kazemi has written seven original songs for this non-musical play. The songs are interspersed throughout the performance and, true to grunge culture, most are loud, jarring and abrasive. Some of the songs sport lyrics gleaned from 16th century poetry, which is a nice touch.
However, it does stretch the show to a running time of 2 hours and 50 minutes.
Ballads Introduce Characters to Audience
Some of the songs are toned-down, as in the opening ballad, “Joyful/Sad.” This is how we meet Beatrice, one of the play’s main characters. A chaste young lady, this Beatrice first appears wearing a plaid shirt and ripped jeans. Her lightly combed brown hair is worn loosely around her head. She would be virtually unnoticeable walking down the streets of Seattle today. Beatrice holds a microphone as she croons her ballad. Like many of the cast members, she strums a guitar or some other instrument as she sings. Milwaukee Rep audiences must accept that some actors occasionally step out of character to join an upstage band, including Benedick, Borachio and Hero.
The scenes are played out as prescribed, beginning in the lavish household of governor Leonato (played by longtime Rep favorite Jonathan Gillard Daly). He lives with his young daughter, Hero (Sarah SuzukI) and her best friend, Beatrice (Alex Keiper).
From the get-go, Beatrice shows no fear of jockeying with the men in terms of attitude and assertiveness. Her chief target is Benedick (Nate Burger), a confirmed bachelor. Their delicious exchanges are some of the wittiest ever written by Shakespeare. Burger, a seasoned Shakespearean actor who has spent more than a dozen seasons at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis., knows how to work the crowd. As he initially rails against the fairer sex, Burger gives full vent to his disaffection for women.
However, it is only a matter of time before Burger will have to eat those words. But first, a plot must be set by the couple’s friends and relatives to convince each character that the other is hopelessly in love with them.
Under Braza’s excellent direction, the plan to kindle this romance appears both well-designed and spontaneous. With Benedick “hiding” (almost in plain sight), his companions praise Beatrice's virtues and lament the fact that her secret love for Benedick will remain forever unspoken. Benedick's keen interest in this conversation leads him extreme lengths (and pratfalls).
Soon, it is Beatrice’s turn to “overhear” the conversation between Hero and her companions. As agreed, they delve into many of Benedict’s strengths while mentioning that he only has eyes for Beatrice. The same grove of stylized trees and shrubs (sets by Arnold Bueso) is used for both of these sequences.
The Plot Is Hatched
With these key elements in place, other characters emerge to create various subplots. Don Pedro, a war hero (played by seasoned Shakespearean actor and local favorite Mark Corkins), basically anchors the production. It is he who offers to woo Hero for the sake of one of his tongue-tied friends, Claudio (Chicago-based Kenneth Hamilton). Like all of the production's soldiers, Corkins wears the tan, camouflage outfits of the Gulf War. Don Pedro is instrumental in steering Benedick’s thoughts to Beatrice. Unfortunately, he is also the brother to Don John (played here in a bit of gender-flipped casting by Michelle Shupe). Shupe proves that a woman can be every bit the villain as a man, as she carries out her own plot to destroy the marriage of Claudio and Hero. On the night before the nuptials, Don John's servant pretends to be Hero's lover as the horrified Claudio and Don Pedro watch in the bushes.
Don John’s plot is successful, and Claudio refuses to marry his bride-to-be. Even Leonato, Hero's father, is fooled by the "evidence" against her. It is up to a bunch of witless police officers to unravel Don John's deed. As the leader of these dunderheads, Michael Doherty plays Dogberry with considerable comic skill. Paired with his assistant, the older Verges (Will Mobley), Dogberry brings to mind the comic film, Dumb and Dumber. How they manage to apprehend and get confessions from the villains is, frankly, unbelievable. But it is a lot of fun to watch.
One of the key turning points in Much Ado is Beatrice’s instruction to Benedick: “Kill Claudio.” In my experience, it’s the first time that this line has triggered an audience's laughter, instead of a muffled gasp. After this line is uttered, the play often shifts to a more serious theme as Benedick agrees and then searches out Claudio. But in the Rep’s version, Claudio never really seems in danger.
Finally, one must mention the excellent work of choreographer Jenn Rose, who is particularly impressive in staging the party scenes with the perfect amount of coordinated movement. Costume designer Mieka van der Ploeg also pulls out all the stops, too. Men are dressed in jewel-toned, velvet dinner jackets, and the ladies wear elegant attire to match (although sometimes paired with Doc Martens boots). The stage is sumptuously lit by Jesse King, with sound design by Josh Schmidt.
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Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic who has been a member of the American Theatre Critics Association for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.