MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHINGby William Shakespeare
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Directed by Jason and Lauren Morgan
Live music composer – Christine Renee Hand Jones
Set Design – Jason Morgan
Scenic Design – Lauren Morgan
Lighting Design – Bryan Douglas
Sound Design – Lauren Morgan and Jennifer Stewart
Costume Design – Lauren Morgan
Props Design – Jennifer Stewart
Props Artisan – Jean Jeske
Stage Manager – Cornelius Austin
Benedick – Brad Stephens
Beatrice – Felecia Bertch
Claudio – Robert Twaddell
Hero – Jessica Taylor
Don Pedro – Michael Johnson
Don John – Adam Kullman
Leonato – Kim Titus
Balthasar – Lauren Morgan
Borachio – Andrew Manning
Conrade – D. Aiden Wright
Margaret – Karen Matheny
Ursula – Lindsay Hayward
Dogberry – Richard Stubblefield
Verges – Terry Yates
Friar Francis – Delmar H. Dolbier
The Watch – Kelley Garland, Chris Rothbauer, Samantha Snow
Reviewed Performance: 2/11/2017
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Much Ado About Nothing is the story of two couples destined to find happiness. One is young and innocent, filled with visions of everlasting love, while the other is older, grizzled, sharp-tongued, wanting nothing to do with each other. Throw in friends who want to foil their animosity for fun and sport and a bad guy ready to spoil everything, and you have one of Shakespeare’s most endearing comedies.
Much Ado is part of Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s Shakespeare Festival, this year called Love’s Labour’s Won! It’s playing at Sanders Theater in Fort Worth in repertory with Love’s Labour’s Lost, another love and marriage comedy. The two shows alternate across the next three weeks, so check dates and times.
This story includes mistaken identity, legitimate and illegitimate love, and foul intentions, all Shakespearean staples. It touches on honor, shame, and social complications in society. The deceptive title plays on the English term, “noting,” which means gossip and rumor. Benedick and Beatrice are tricked, as they listen to gossip, into confessing their hidden love, even as they fume, fight and spar. Both are quick-witted, sharp-tongued and known for their tempers and disdain for marriage. Benedick’s young comrade, Claudio, is also tricked to deny his love for his beloved Hero, because of vicious rumor. As in most Shakespearean comedy, things work out. But the path to the end is delicious.
The Much Ado set was simple, serviceable, and yet fully equipped with warmth and beauty that focused attention on the love story. Directors, and Set and Scenic Designers, Lauren and Jason Morgan, used flat construction and multilevel towers, along with platforms, an arbor frame, and a tall balcony, to create the facades of an Italian villa, all painted to look like stone or stucco, which framed a garden filled with plants, trees, and flower baskets on top of those tower posts. A large log and stump provided a kind of woody area on one side. A half-dozen light fixtures hung down over the set, each providing a point of light, but also colors and shapes in the scene. This was enhanced by the lighting of Bryan Douglas to make those natural garden colors really pop, to provide highlights on set areas and to narrow the audience focus on certain actors. Altogether the setting was pastoral and peaceful. The playing area is smallish black box space, but the Morgan’s set had great width and depth, as well as height in those flower towers, balcony and hanging light fixtures.
One thing that stands out in all SSG productions is Lauren Morgan’s costume designs and Much Ado was no different. Look at the gallery on their website or Facebook page. Costumes were beautiful, ornate, with color schemes that seemed accurate to the times in browns and tans and natural fabrics. It looked like a lot of research informed those costumes. Large billowy dresses in subdued, patterned colors, pantaloons for men with knee-length boots, and all the costumes provided clues to each characters’ place in the social order, which was very important then. Characters also used a nice representation of period props, including rapiers for each soldier, knives for non-soldiers, and many other items. Credit for Props Design went to Jennifer Stewart and Jean Jeske got credit for Prop Artisan.
Sound effects for this story involved bird sounds and sounds of the garden, along with guitar music that played at times. Lauren Morgan and Jennifer Stewart get the credit for this design. While the music was mostly perfect for the setting, it played at times over dialog and covered up the language some; not enough to block the words, but enough to make the Shakespearean language, difficult to hear easily.
Each actor wore their characters well, another testament to the casting and direction. I’m not going to suggest type casting, but each “looked” the part and seemed a fit for their character.
Benedick was played by Brad Stephens. As senior soldier of the visiting military contingent, this confident and strong character conveyed a bit of bravado and had a strong sense of his preference for solitary life, but Stephens revealed the private ambivalence Benedick carried, as if he “doth protest too loudly.” In his long-standing war of words with Beatrice, Benedick matches her own wit, but his friends see through his façade and, when faced with possible love, we saw through Stephens’ sudden private longing and his monologues, that Benedick was more of a lover than he admitted.
Felecia Bertch as Beatrice also portrayed a character who built a wall around herself and played her quick, rapier wit about and to Benedick with gusto. For both self-deceiving characters, they eventually become almost giddy, shocked and teenage-like when they think the other is professing love in private. So two of the really funny scenes in this story has each actor, in turn, falling all over themselves as they hear the deception unfold by their friends in the garden, and these scenes made these two characters human and fallible. At a later time, Beatrice is struck with the bad effects of her cousin’s vicious deception and Bertch played this deep mourning and anger with great skill in an iconic scene that screams, “How much do you really love me?!” It’s one of the really tasty scenes of this play and Bertch and Stephens did it with excellence.
Robert Twaddell played Claudio as the young soldier and friend to Benedick, who gets smitten immediately on meeting the young Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, played by Jessica Taylor. Both of these actors played the stereotypical love-at-first-sight story, but also showed uncertainty and jealousy that often strikes young lovers in the early days. Hero, as the young innocent, is manipulated by her family into the quickly arranged marriage, which she’s happy to do because of her love for Claudio. This story soon goes badly. Through this arc, Taylor played the innocent who feels the highest of highs, as her life suddenly fills with love, and the lowest of lows as her ground is ripped from under her. Claudio, on the other hand, also falls madly in love with Hero, only to be torn apart after hearing news that hurts him deeply. Twaddell played this transition from ecstasy to agony with rage and anger that derives from betrayal. In both actors, the raw emotions were palpable.
All the hate and discontent comes from Don John, military commander Don Pedro’s bastard brother. This status drives Don John to constant jealousy and evil thinking. Adam Kullman created this simplistically evil character with a visible negativity in his persona from the opening scene. This is one of Shakespeare’s least developed evil characters, because he appears angry in the first scene and never changes. As a character he has no reason other than petty jealousy to set out his evil plan, but decides to devastate innocent people in order to stick a dagger into his brother. Kullman had to work with this lack of development to create the seeds of betrayal that caused so much damage.
Don Pedro, played by Michael Johnson, and Leonato, played by Kim Titus, were the old establishment generation of this play. Johnson’s Don Pedro is the commander of the military troop that visits the estate of the wealthy Leonato, father of Hero and uncle to Beatrice. In Don Pedro, Johnson created a strong military archetype who knows his place of command, but also feels his place as a guest in Leonato’s house. Even as Don Pedro is involved in the manipulation that gets Claudio and Hero together and the deception that gets Beatrice and Benedick to admit their love for each other, he is also caught up in the deception created by his brother, Don John, which makes Claudio think Hero betrayed him. Johnson played a wide set of reactions to all of these truth manipulations, while maintaining his stature as a leader of the military and friend to his soldiers.
Leonato, on the other hand, is the estate owner who hosts this band of military brothers and quickly approves of the marriage of his daughter, Hero, to Claudio. Kim Titus had the gravitas to create this character as both a respected leader of the community, but also a father who gave in to the vicious rumor and then disowned his own daughter, before finding out the truth and lamenting his guilt. His path through this story was a roller-coaster and Titus play through all these divergent emotions with sensitivity and believability.
One of the great advances Shakespeare gave theater was the large ensemble cast where the lowest ranking character conveys dialog important to the story. Much Ado is the same and the cast of this production was an ensemble of strong actors, anyone of whom might play lead characters anywhere, and in fact do. Numerous characters who are minor in their story social status, are very critical to telling the story in an interesting way. They gave Much Ado its flow and lots of its comedy, especially the deception scenes and arrest scenes where the truth of Don John comes out.
One unique feature of this SSG production came in the opening scene and later in a funeral scene. Director Lauren Morgan also played a character named Balthasar, who has a minor part in the story, but sings solos on two scenes, accompanied by guitarist Felecia Bertch. Composed by Christine Renee Hand Jones, these two pieces created a nice touch adding atmosphere to the story.
Much Ado About Nothing has so many levels that you can see this show multiple times and get different themes beyond the basic love stories sullied by deception and rumor. There is double and triple entendre, starting with the title, carnal innuendo (though SSG makes this PG rated), and themes about how people treat each other. In this day of “fake news,” perhaps there are parallels we all should consider, as well as people who perpetrate evil on innocents for their own political agenda. In any case, Stolen Shakespeare Guild makes Shakespeare accessible to all audiences and easily understandable. Together with Love’s Labour’s Lost, this festival is perfect entertainment for the season of love and valentine.
Stolen Shakespeare Guild
Fort Worth Community Arts Center in the Sanders Theatre
1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth, TX 76107
Runs through March 5th
Much Ado About Nothing: Friday, February 10, 2017 at 8:00PM
Much Ado About Nothing: Saturday, February 11, 2017 at 8:00PM
Much Ado About Nothing: Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 2:00PM
Much Ado About Nothing: Saturday, February 18, 2017 at 8:00PM
Much Ado About Nothing: Friday, February 24, 2017 at 8:00PM
Much Ado About Nothing: Sunday, February 26, 2017 at 2:00PM
Much Ado About Nothing: Saturday, March 4, 2017 at 8:00PM
Much Ado About Nothing: Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 2:00PM
SSG Festival Pricing: Evenings $18, Senior/Military/Student $16, Matinee $15
Double Feature Saturday, Feb 18 $25.00 (See both shows)
Double Feature Sunday, February 26 $20.00 (See both shows)
For information and tickets, go to www.stolenshakespeareguild.org or call Theatre Mania at 866-811-4111.