This year’s 2023 CSF Much Ado About Nothing is the most audience engaged performance to hit the Mary Rippon stage in your reviewer’s memory over the past 50 years. The spontaneity that characterizes this Much Ado may owe much to the variety and experimental theatrical approach of CSF, the close professional working relationships developed within the CSF team over the years, and their directors, like Much Ado’s Kevin Rich. This shows across the 2023 program, in Winter’s Tale, Lear, this year’s Original Practice version of Comedy of Errors, and the non-Shakespearean piece, One Man, Two Guvnors.
Much Ado, accompanied by the hilarious tiffs, turned love tristes, of Beatrice and Benedick, and the Charlie Chaplain antics of Constable Dogberry’s crew of garbled speaking misfits, this production manages to pull off one of the most difficult of feats:
Drawing in both actors, and audience in concert, frequently punctuated by seeming outbursts of laughter, Shakespeare’s plays move on the two levels that typically characterize his works: simultaneous comedy and the exploration of the deeper themes of the contradictions of love, and the oppositions inherent in the human condition.
How does this come about? What does Live Theater bring that film cannot approach? And especially in this play?
To understand this, a short synopsis to complement the Amanda Giguere’s excellent dramaturg notes in your program:
A troop of soldiers under the command of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, arrive fresh from battle, victorious, unscathed, to Leonato’s gardened mansion in Messina, Sicily. Two love matches ensue, the first ‘tween the young impressionable Count Claudio, stricken by Leonato’s only daughter, Hero. The second requires the combined trickery of the whole of Leonato’s household and Don Pedro’s band: how to cause the two eternally long warring pair, Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, Hero’s closely knit bed cousin, and eternally declared bachelor, Signor Benedick, to abandon their merry war of cutting words and recognize like so many of Shakespeare’s many pairs of lovers, to fall madly in mutually, self-respecting love.
Caught in the Act – Dogberry Days
Caught in the Act is the watchword behind the multiple plot twists that, as Kevin Rich, points out ‘make us wonder if the two pairs will ever come to the wedded state?’ Claudio, immature in matters of love, is easily drawn to jealousy, and even the supposedly worldly Don Pedro, are both so easily gullibilled by Don Pedro’s bastardly villain brother, and his crew, into doubt by Don John’s words and the false scene set before their eyes.
Quickly turning doubt to accusation on the pure and modest Hero’s innocence, they throw all at her in canceling her at the very moment they are to be bound in wedlock. Casting her reputation to the winds of all Messina, her own father, even briefly, is convinced, in dismay.
Will the empathetic plea of the Holy attending Friar (played by Ellen McLaughlin, CSF’s first women King Lear), set to join the couple in wedlock, and the newly mutually declared love, of the tearful Beatrice and her Benedick, be able to save the day?
The latter transform, in declaring their love, the former, the Friar, suggests to let out that Hero has actually died as a result of her public rejection. The hope is that this will set in motion a deep guilt and doubt in her accusers’ minds and emotions.
But how to undo the actual acts of treachery that Don John and Borachio, by false words and false scene, portrayed before willing eyes and ears?
Enter, hopping, no prancing! No bouncing through the air, from the audience’s stage left, arrive Constable Dogberry, played by the ever-talented Sean Scrutchins, and his crew of misfit police imported into Sicily from their native England.
Where did this wholly invented crew arrive from in Will Shakespeare’s wild imagination? Could he have modeled them on the huge London crowd of Groundlings that typically formed the majority of his audience? Standing without break, even for relief, through the entire performance, they were packed immediately around the Globe main stage (no scene or act breaks in those days).
Instructed to mind their Ps&Qs, and remember their writing and reading skills (Shakespeare’s fellow Middle Classers, like himself, were the best educated in Europe, the snippety nobles included), Dogberry and his neighbor, set the rest of his crew to keep an eye out for treachery and treason. And lo and behold, they overhear the knave Borachio confess how, overhearing of the intended betrothal, he suggests the villainy to Don John.
Carrying out a love triste with his sometime girlfriend Margaret, Hero’s maid, Borachio, one of Don John’s ilk, draws her to Hero’s window, repeatedly, falsely, calling out her mistress, Hero’s name, to fool the gullible Claudio and Don Pedro. They will, the next morning, publicly accuse Hero on her wedding day, abandoning her at the altar.
Captured by Dogberry and his misfits, the Constable carries out an hilariously incompetent interrogation. But Dogberry is incapable of conveying this to Hero’s father Leonato, who cannot bear hearing the tedious Constable’s tale, heading off to the imminent marriage of his daughter.
One can only point to the accompanying snapshots, and the short YouTube video, below, to convey the hilarity, and why there are seemingly repeated outbursts of laughter throughout this performance.
Overheard and Falling Overhead – Beatrice and Benedick Tricked into Love
How does the whole household, the two sets, Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio and Hero and Margaret, in turn, turn the merry war between Beatrice and Signor Benedick into falling head over heels in love? Like the enacted Dogberry scenes, the way this Much Ado brings in its audience as part of the cast, as cheerleading chorus for the pair, tells us much about how Live Theater works versus film.
In the play, as it is translated to the screen (the 1993 Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson version), the two scenes in which Benedick, and Beatrice, are each gulled into belief, are set in a garden. Benedick and Beatrice, each, in turn set up, overhear, by report, how their opposites are madly in love with them. Jumping from behind one tree to another, they end with each determining that they must somehow requite, and declare their new found partner’s passionate love.
The CSF production carries this to a different level of insanity. That level is signaled by the energy, and subtlety, of both Jessica Robblee’s Beatrice, and K.P. Powell’s Benedick, and transformed from their mighty war of wits, and dedication to the unmarried life, magically, into love.
The setting for this transformation here replaces Leonato’s Garden Grove more of a Courtyard/Garden. And as you can see in the photos, every item on the stage is utilized as hiding place, in turn, for the pair of overhearers. The two utilize wall hangings, the table set full of fruits and table wares, the gurgling fountain in center stage. At one point we see Benedick almost overturn the full table he is hiding under, and even reach out from under, with only his hand showing, to pick up and replace a pewter on it.
One of the most hilarious of Beatrice’s antics is when she roils around the fountain, diving under the water to conceal herself, and coming up drenched. She, in the next scenes, has caught a cold from it all. Not only do these wild scenes evoke laughter from the audience, but the fine touches like her sniffling cold, bring out the deeper nuances CSF brings to the story.
Which brings us to:
The Deeper Resonances of the Characters and the Play – the move from Early to Middle/Late Comedy and the Wartime Setting
Kevin Rich points to ‘the hints in Much Ado of ‘the plays to come’, the transition to Shakespeare’s Middle Comedy of the last years of Elizabeth’ towards such plays as Twelfth Night (CSF 2019).
As in all his plays, there is a nuance, and an ability to change, that makes each character uniquely stand out. Borachio is a particularly subtle example. For was it not Borachio, who both informed Don John of the impending wedding of Hero and Claudio, and suggested the means of implementing the scheme, then gloating to his compatriot over Don John’s rich reward?
But when he hears that Hero has actually died of her public shaming and rejection, and Don John has fled, to leave he and the others to bear the blame, a practice very much alive. Borachio is deeply shaken, and begins his remorse. He confesses in front of Claudio and Don Pedro, his part in the villainy, and wishes only for his own death as reward. Is this not crucial in the two accusers admitting their own shame and remorse in bringing on the ‘apparent’ tragedy, and moving the end towards a hopefully happier conclusion?
Borachio’s confession is doubly revealing, in that the viewing of the false night scene observed at Hero’s window is never actually portrayed in Shakespeare’s version, but only Borachio’s reporting of what took place and the entire scheme that led up to, and proceeded from it. And Borachio’s transformation concludes with his strong defense of Margaret, as having not only no part, but no awareness, of the affair, and laying the blame on himself, alone.
Now this example of healing fits into the often noted, larger context, of the actual real war just concluded as the play begins. Might it not on a more personal, family, level be reflected in the narratives and display, associated with the ultimate transformation of the love relationships between couples?
Now as you prepare to head off to the show, you might want to delve down one layer deeper, by tapping into Part II of this story, a context common to both our author’s day and our present present: the war setting of the 2023 performance in post World War I Paris, emphasized by dramaturg, Amanda Giguere, and the Elizabethan setting and the French Connection of its original performance.