Smartly set in the 1940s and bolstered by excellent performances, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s “Much Ado About Nothing” bursts with comic energy as it provocatively explores the issues of gender in Shakespeare’s text. “Much Ado,” which runs Oct. 9-Oct. 17 in the Agassiz Theater, succeeds in bringing out both the play’s hilarity and complexity in full force.
Director Allegra C. Caldera ’17’s choice to set the play immediately after World War II is natural: The characters have just returned from a war, and the costumes, designed by Julia T. Thomas ’17 and Rachel R. Martin ’18, are instantly appealing. In addition to these atmospheric effects, the setting allows Caldera to more powerfully underline the gender dynamics in the text. The postwar context adds nuance to the “merry war” between longtime friends and verbal rivals Benedick (Eli J. Kresta ’16) and Beatrice (Kier W. Zimmerman ’19), and transforms the enraged rants of Claudio (Nick D. Hornedo ’19) and Leonato (Nathaniel J. Brodsky ’18) about soiled virtue from antique Shakespearean concerns about honor into a caricature of all-too-relatable modern misogyny. Beatrice and Benedick’s denunciations of marriage and the other characters’ insistences that they will eventually marry particularly resonate when considered against the era’s conflict between social upheaval and lingering conservatism.
In a simple, effective change, Don John (Ali L. Astin ’19), the wealthy antagonist, is played by a woman. In her first scene, the black-clad Don John orders her servant Borachio (Henry M.N. Brooks ’19) to pick trash off the ground by simply clearing her throat, and a wordless Borachio obliges. From the near outset, this creates an acute awareness of how the rest of the play upends and parodies outdated gender tropes. By placing a villainous woman at the center of the titular ado, Caldera brings pointed attention to the gender-driven relationships in the play, which are further accentuated by the looming social changes of the ’50s and ’60s.
Rather than seeming glaring or forced, the update effectively directs attention to the actors and to Shakespeare’s hilarious text. Although the costumes and music are distinctively ’40s, the set, by Trevor A. Mullin ’17, and lighting, by Alice F. Berenson ’16, are straightforward. The staging rarely strays outside the traditional: The actors only leave the stage twice. In a somewhat puzzling decision, though, Hero (Madi E. Deming ’18) presides above the events of Acts IV and V during which she is rumored dead; perhaps intended to remind the audience that Hero is not, in fact, dead, her presence distracts, though it does not disrupt. Caldera fares better in her staging of Beatrice and Benedick: In their sparring, they usually face each other across the stage and slowly approach each other, heightening their friction and sexual tension.
The actors are the production’s greatest strength: With wit and bustle, they create laughs both with and without Shakespeare’s text. In particular, Astin’s Don John is marvelously surly, and Hornedo impresses as a boyish, emotive Claudio. In the show’s funniest scene, Hornedo, Brian A. Cami ’19, and Brodsky (as Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato, respectively) loudly—and falsely—gossip about Beatrice’s love for Benedick as Benedick, played by a quick, commanding Kresta, bumblingly hides himself to listen. The actors gleefully ham it up as Kresta frantically leaps across and below the stage, knocking over set pieces. The entire show is characterized by this slapstick-happy energy of the supporting cast, and their sense of fun is contagious.
Many a scene is stolen by Jacob W. Roberts ’19 as the malapropism-given constable Dogberry. Followed (hilariously slowly) by his elderly assistant Verges, played by a double-cast Cami, Roberts takes Dogberry’s pretentiousness and ineptitude to outrageous levels, manifested in larger-than-life expressions, gangly movements, and piercing screeches. When Verges’s cane broke, apparently unexpectedly to the actors, Roberts’s frenzied absurdity and Cami’s obliviosity turned the mishap into one of the show’s funniest moments. In the court scene, in which Dogberry repeatedly howls Borachio’s accusation that he is “an ass” so it might be recorded, Roberts’s outsized presence is so entertaining that his castmates struggled to contain their laughter.
In the play’s final moments, the characters pursue Don John and Borachio through the audience, with period music heightening the mock suspense in an homage to ’40s crime movies. For this “Much Ado,” it is a fitting conclusion: theme-appropriate, chaotic, and, above all, joyous. Although the HRDC’s “Much Ado” adds thought-provoking dimensions to the play’s themes of gender and marriage, it centrally seeks comedy. In both respects it succeeds admirably.
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