Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Sierra Trinchet for New World Shakespeare Company, at the Wasatch Theatre Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 8 September 2019.
Reviewed by David W. Hartwig (Weber State University)
New World Shakespeare Company’s raison d’etre is to make Shakespeare’s works accessible to modern audiences. The company has adopted a race-blind and gender-blind casting ethos, and provides interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays that emphasize themes relevant to 21st Century American audiences. NWSC is “amateur” in the most important of ways: the actors are all volunteers, many of whom are active members of Salt Lake’s thriving theatrical scene, who choose to work with NWSC because of the company’s ethical standards. Additionally, NWSC partners with local community organizations whose work mirrors each production’s thematic emphases, and donates all proceeds to these community partners.
For Much Ado, NWSC chose to partner with Utah Women’s Giving Circle, which invests in projects designed to empower women in Utah with the goal of overturning the gender-based discrimination faced by women in the state. It is no surprise, then, that this Much Ado took as its locus the disempowerment of women that is at the play’s core. The producers explained in a program note that Hero “is manipulated, cajoled, and tortured through the action of the play” while the men “who perpetuate these wrongs go unpunished and even ultimately rewarded.”
This thematic emphasis created dissonances during the performance that were very effective. The Wasatch Theatre’s black box space had been decorated with topiaries and park-style benches. The women characters wore brightly colored dresses, and the men began in military-style garb. The opening scene captured the gendered “worlds” of this mise-en-scène. While she has few lines, Hero (Jenn Waterhouse) was in constant interaction with both Beatrice (Allison Froh) and the audience, emphasizing the importance of the character to the company’s vision. The men, on the other hand, were bold and brash, emphasizing their immature masculine exuberance. The initial interchange between Benedick (Jeff Stinson) and Beatrice became quite heated, bordering on outright anger, and Stinson’s baritone sounded deeply threatening at times.
Similarly, during the not-a-wedding scene, the gendered power dynamics were strongly apparent. Eli Unruh played Claudio with very little outward anger in the scene. Rather, he maintained an effective coldness toward Hero, and a confidence that his accusations were accurate and would be accepted. After the men exited, the interchange between Beatrice and Benedick provided a stark contrast in tone. Stinson’s Benedick was at a point of desperation for Beatrice, and the range of emotions Beatrice went through were impressively played by Froh.
In contrast with the thematic emphasis on the play’s dark misogyny, Trinchet’s direction maintained balance with the play’s comedy. Thus there were stark tonal shifts leading to the aforementioned dissonance, but which kept each scene feeling fresh and new. The comedic action of the play was perfectly encapsulated by Conor Thompson’s over-the-top performance as Dogberry AND Verges (who was a fierce, German-accented puppet on Dogberry’s hand). Thompson’s manic energy and comic timing had the audience convulsing with laughter. Similarly, the comic villains seemed to convert their roles into caricatures, with Elise C. Barnett-Curran playing Don John as a vaudevillian dominatrix leading on Bryce Kamryn’s perpetually drunk Borachio.
The gulling scenes likewise reveled in their own silliness. Benedick’s “the world must be peopled” speech was cut, allowing for at least some temporal balance between the two scenes, and the gulling of Beatrice had the audience in tears of laughter with its physical humor. At one point, Froh’s Beatrice hid beneath the chairs stage-right, while Waterhouse’s Hero sat above her and directed her pointed critique at her cousin below. This was one of the few productions of Much Ado I’ve seen in which the gulling of Beatrice outshone that of Benedick, and not because the latter was poorly done. The physical humor of Froh and Waterhouse excelled, and the previously established closeness of their relationship had developed the requisite pathos among the audience for the scene to be so effective.
The production was paced very well, with no scene changes, three entrances in similar position as on an early modern stage, and subtle light changes to enhance the comic-tragic contrasts of the play. In a semi-comic twist, Hero snuck into the “graveyard” for Claudio’s mourning scene and hid behind a topiary; this functioned as both a nod to the earlier gulling scenes, and an effective way to return some of the power to Hero by allowing her to witness and judge Claudio’s repentance. In another twist, the final lines of the play were reassigned to Beatrice, allowing women the final word.
This ending was effective, but not altogether satisfying. Given New World Shakespeare Co.’s ethos and thematic emphases, I was left feeling, as the producers’ note elucidated, that the men were in some way rewarded for their bad behaviors. Perhaps this is a stark reminder of the intractable nature of patriarchy in Shakespeare’s time and as evidenced through his plays. Short of a drastic rewrite, these plays reflect values that are over 400 years old. And yet, perhaps the ending of this Much Ado also stands as a profound reminder that while we may have “come a long way” in those four centuries, contemporary America has still not achieved true equality. Upon reflection, given the company’s casting policies, it would have been interesting to see the gender of the characters flipped in some way. In Utah, a state consistently ranked among the most misogynistic in the country, the casting and thematic emphasis of this production may have been exactly what is needed. Rather than flipping characters’ genders, the audience saw a stark reflection of the misogyny so prevalent in the immediate geographic area. What more could one ask from a small, local company dedicated to its community?