‘Much Ado’ modernizes classic tale
By Jane Reynolds, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, February 7, 2011
The Rude Mechanicals delighted audience members with their clever, intimate performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” last weekend, which opened on Friday night to a sold-out house. Although the 13 performers remained true to Shakespeare’s original words, they managed to modernize the show with humorous puns, accents, contemporary costumes and a witty interpretation of the text.
“Much Ado About Nothing” capitalizes on the hilarity of mix-ups and mistaken identities. Hero (Grace Johnson ’11) and Claudio (Chase Klein ’14) look forward to their wedding until the evil Don John (Stephen Jangro ’11) intervenes, tricking Claudio into thinking that Hero has not been faithful to him. Claudio denounces Hero, accusing her of unfaithfulness, and the young woman falls into despair.
But despite this wrenching drama, comedy pervades throughout the show as a romance unfolds between the fiery Benedick (Neil Basu ’11) and equally headstrong Beatrice (Emily Baxter ’11).
Shakespeare’s play is set in Messina on the island of Sicily, but aside from a few mentions of the city in the text, the Rude Mechanicals’ performance all but masked this fact. Several of the actors employed accents in the show, but none of their chosen dialects were Italian.
Evan Ross ’13, playing the Spanish prince Don Pedro, solicited numerous laughs with his heavy Spanish accent and mischievous looks. Meanwhile, Patton Lowenstein ’14 used a heavy southern accent to portray the bumbling constable Dogberry. Although Lowenstein’s accent initially seemed like a bad impersonation of Matthew McConaughey, it actually fit quite well with the character of the idiotic watchman — who reminded the audience repeatedly, “I am an ass.”
If the play’s designated setting did not carry much importance for the Rude Mechanicals, neither did the scenery that would typically be used to convey that setting. Performed in the Hopkins Center’s Bentley Theater — a small black box theater — the show was completely void of any set pieces.
But rather than detracting from the show, the empty stage served to highlight the actors’ impressive performances. The Bentley’s small size provided an intimate setting in which the audience was able to connect and engage with the actors, unimpeded by distance or elaborate set pieces. The actors chose to rarely use the Bentley’s primary stage, instead spending most of the show performing on the sunken stage — less than a foot from some audience members.
At times, the actors even interacted with the audience. When Benedick had to hide, Basu took the seat of an elementary school student, much to the delight of the child and his giggling friends. Playing the watchman, Jay Ben Markson ’10 crawled between seats at the end of the play, also using the audience as a hiding place. At one point during the show, Don Pedro got down on one knee and asked an audience member for her hand in marriage, provoking much laughter.
“I really enjoyed watching the performers interact with others in the audience,” said Kirsten Homma ’11, who attended the show on opening night, said. “It added an extra element of excitement to the play and made the scenes even funnier.”
The only downside to using the Bentley for the performance was the lack of space the actors had to enter and exit scenes. Several seats in the audience provided a clear view of the area behind the stage, where actors were coming and going as they prepared for their time onstage. On several occassions, the only way the performers could wait to enter a scene was to stand just a few feet behind the audience.
If entrances and exits posed such a problem in a real theater, the Rude Mechanical’s spring show at the Bema will no doubt prove even more difficult to stage.
Although being able to see actors backstage was somewhat off-putting, the intimacy forged by the Bentley’s small space far outweighed this minor inconvenience.
“Much Ado About Nothing” ran for just under two hours, including a 10-minute intermission. Although the show was quite lengthy, it was so entertaining that it seemed much shorter.
“Often when you think of Shakespeare, a long, dragging performance comes to mind,” Homma said. “But this performance moved along at the perfect pace for the audience to understand what was going on while not taking away from the entertainment value of it.”
The performance went by so quickly largely because the Rude Mechanicals delivered a convincing and exciting performance, putting their own spin on the classic tale.
While they stuck to the 17th-century script, the performers’ mannerisms were modern and so relatable that the foreignness of the language all but melted away as the play progressed.
The comedic performances of Ross, Baxter and Basu brought “Much Ado about Nothing” to life effortlessly, leaving the audience satisfied at having enjoyed a high-caliber reinterpretation of one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies.
Baxter and Lowenstein are members of The Dartmouth Staff.