Much Ado About Nothing by Perchance Theatre at Cupids, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 2015
Reviewed by Rob Ormsby
Much Ado About Nothing launches the sixth season of Shakespeare at Cupids, one hour outside of St. John’s (Newfoundland and Labrador). Rebranded Perchance Theatre in 2014 after three years as the New World Theatre Project, the company maintains a certain amount of continuity between this season and those gone by. The company’s Indeavour Theatre—meant to evoke both an early modern playhouse and the ship belonging to Cupid’s first governor, John Guy—is pretty much the same as it was in 2010, though its planks have weathered to a handsome silvery grey. As usual, the company offers both a comedy and a tragedy (Macbeth), in addition to a series of story-telling and musical events.
However, this is the first overtly modern-dress Shakespeare I can recall at Cupids; in the past, productions were either costumed for Rome (a truncated version of Caesar in its opening season) or for some version of the early modern era. Much Ado’s director, Jeanette Lambermont-Morey, even set the company’s 2012 Tempest in early seventeenth-century Newfoundland as a kind of commemoration of John Guy’s historical encounter with members of the Beothuk First Nation.
Lambermont-Morey has chosen Italy of the early 1940s for the backdrop in Much Ado. If she is actually signalling Sicily in the wake of the Allied invasion of that island, theatregoers might be hard-pressed to reconcile the history of the German-Italian retreat/evacuation across the Strait of Messina (or the course of the war more generally) with the victorious return of the men to Leonato’s estate. Lambermont-Morey explains in her director’s note that she wanted to drive home the characters’ need for a respite from war, so she chose a time “just prior to the downfall of Mussolini,” when Italy had to ask if “Fascism [is] the glorious salvation or is it a cruel and violent oppression?”
We get a taste of this wavering between armed conflict and peace/romance before the play’s action begins: as spectators file into the open-air theatre to take their seats on rough plank benches (more comfortable than the ones at the Globe), they watch the women, dressed as nurses (in red cross-emblazoned caps and 1940s-ish dresses and cardigans) folding up bandaging as Leonato (George Robertson) listens to a radio broadcast that shifts from light-hearted music to what sounds like Mussolini’s belligerent political speechifying.
Aside from the men’s uniforms and a few tense moments of these soldiers’ military posturing, however, the specific context of Italy’s uncertain wartime fate recedes into the background; by and large, this Much Ado delivers what most would expect from summertime Shakespeare, namely lighthearted humour, narrative clarity, and non-threatening audience interaction.
The B-side lovers do precisely what they should in this sort of production; Dylan Brenton’s Claudio is more callow (and a bit of a cipher) compared to Erin Mackey’s fresh-faced-though-lively Hero, but both deliver an unobjectionable charm that fails only during the broken nuptials. Their inoffensiveness allows the alpha couple to remain in the spotlight which, given the circumstances, seems an appropriate decision. Alexis Koetting—who begins in heavy black boots, coveralls and head-wrap like Rosie the Riveter but soon changes into flared slacks and a blouse—plays Beatrice as a sharp-tongued though charismatic and magnanimous woman who is genuinely sorry when her refusal of Don Pedro’s (Steve O’Connell) marriage offer breaks the man’s heart. She is well-matched to John Sheehan’s Benedick, here an only slightly jaded soldier who is more than ready to believe that Beatrice loves him. The banter between Koetting and Sheehan is quick and tart, though their jests are never too barbed, and they are clearly amused by one another’s wit.
Lambermont-Morey has a strong group to fill out the rest of the cast. O’Connell, a veteran St. John’s actor in his first role with the company, is wholly persuasive as a mostly avuncular pipe-smoking general (there is a shocking amount of smoking in this production) who can explode with rage when he’s certain that Claudio’s masculine honour is at stake. His bastard brother becomes his sister Donna Joanna, a taciturn woman in a soldier’s uniform who rarely releases the tight grip on her ever-present rifle. The only time the character’s gender switch stands out, though, is the moment her passion is aroused when she hears of the mischief proposed by Paul Wilson’s Borachio, whom she kisses on the lips. Wilson has toned down his outrageous (and very funny) acting from last season (as Pistol and Dr. Caius), so that his Borachio seems an even match for Alison Moise Kelly’s good-natured and spirited Margaret.
Although the actors regularly break the fourth wall with winks, nods, and direct address, the funniest and best-received moment of audience interaction comes during Borachio’s interrogation. Adopting thick Newfoundland accents, Greg House and George Robertson (respectively) play bumbling lawmen Dogberry and Watch to the hilt. They drag Borachio before the “judge” and “recorder,” two spectators chosen by lottery to sit in a comfortable “royal seat” in the pit, directly facing downstage centre. Robertson (who’s fine, if donnish, as Leonato) eagerly explains the spectators’ responsibilities, and really sells the moment when he reminds the recorder to spell “guilty” “g-i-l-t-e.” Along with Borachio’s arrest, when Robertson executes a fine piece of physical comedy in getting Wilson to hold his hefty police-issue flashlight so he has a free hand to remove Borachio’s pistol from his holster, the exchange with the “royals” is among the funniest episodes in the show.
This kind of humour embodies the community spirit fundamental to open-air festival theatre. Given the professionalism with which this local company works the genre of summertime Shakespeare, they deserve the audience to accept their invitation to join them.
Much Ado About Nothing continues until August 30. For more information, see https://perchancetheatre.com.