As a former student who received an MA in English and who spent quite a bit of time in both the English and Theatre departments during both undergrad and grad school, I’m a little bit ashamed to admit this, but here goes: I’m not really a big Shakespeare fan. Shameful, right? I can recognize the beauty of the language, but it never seduced me like the convoluted constructions of theory. Give me Judith Butler or Michel Foucault any day:
“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel. And so when we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must), we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another, or, indeed, by virtue of another.”
― Judith Butler, Undoing Gender
Now THAT is some sexy writing!
So when I go to a production of Shakespeare, I recognize that I am already at a disadvantage: my brain resists the iambic pentameter, scrambling for meaning like someone who has been dropped off in a foreign country with only one semester of study and a flimsy phrasebook. If a production isn’t well planned or cohesive, I often find myself so distracted by the “odd bits” of the show (trying to figure out the motivation behind the choices made by the actors or members of the production staff – in a sense, looking for the theory behind it all) that I start to fall behind in what’s happening. I can lose track of characters and the particular twists their stories are taking (and with Shakespeare, especially in his comedies, there are always twists: mistaken identities, double meanings and double-crosses) and I end up a waiting for the inevitable wedding before the curtain falls feeling a little annoyed, a little impatient, and a little guilty for not being able to suspend my own modern sensibilities long enough to enjoy the lasting power of the Bard of Avon.
When a production is well-crafted, however, the experience can be quite magical and the Burtness production of Much Ado About Nothing is such a production. All of the elements, both technical and practical, work together to create a delightful theatrical experience. The actors all handle the complex language with aplomb, never falling into the predictable “dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DAH dah-DAH” cadence that iambic pentameter so unfortunately lends itself to. One would expect such a facility with the language from theatre veteran Darin Kerr, who plays Leonato (the father of Hero, played by Daniella Lima, who along with Claudio, played by Brian Dempcy, make up one of the two pairs of challenged lovers in the play), but the entire cast does a fine job of interpreting the language in such a way that it rings musically off the ear rather than feeling clunky or labored. If anything, the villains in the show (Don John, played by Daniel Dutot; Borachio, played by Nick McConnell, and Conrad, played by Ryan King) feel a little flatter than the other characters but this may be in part due to the fact of their creation: they were created to move the plot forward and receive considerably less development than other characters in the script itself.
The director, Ali Angelone, has interpreted this production in a very physical way, speaking to her experience as an accomplished choreographer. This physicality manifests in a wide range of presentations, from elegant formal dances during a masquerade ball scene in which characters wear masks designed by theatre student Emily Elisabeth Hogensen to the slapstick antics of Dogberry, a detective played by Jordan Wolfe, and his band of oafish deputies (Patrick Kloeckner, Jacqueline DeGraff, and Crysta Robinson). The female characters often flit about the stage, and all of this movement is enhanced by the fresh, springy gowns created by costume designer Michelle Spencer Davidson, a nice contrast to the regal gold and jewel-toned brocades of the princes, Don Pedro (Phillip Muehe) and Don John, and their entourage of soldiers and confidantes. The princes and their entourage all wear black leather or vinyl pants that seem somewhat incongruous with the rest of the costuming, but not so much so as to shatter the illusion. Black vinyl has unseemly associations from my hazy undergraduate days in the late 90s, and so perhaps this is all just projection on my part. The women also wear necklaces that were created for the production by Marilyn Gregoire, pieces that add just enough flashes of sparkle without being intrusive. Once again, Spencer Davidson has created not only excellent individual costume pieces but a very successful overall look for the production that is accentuated by the contributions of Hogensen and Gregoire. Brad Reisig, the set designer, has once again created a tiered set that gives the actors many levels on which to play their scenes; the villa itself has two floors but the inclusion of a veranda and sets of stairs that extend from the stage down into the front of the house allow for a use of space that is dynamic and thoughtful without simply being gimmicky.
Although much time is spent with the lovers Hero and Claudio and Don John’s machinations to spoil their wedding day, the crux of the show is the other pair of lovers, Beatrice (Emily Wirkus) and Benedick (Brett Olson). The two are known for their witty repartee, slinging insults back and forth and both claiming that they shall never themselves be married. Wirkus and Olson are lovely in these roles, and their scenes of conflict are filled with crackling banter and a certain acid charm that is truly entertaining. The schemes which eventually push them together are somewhat simplistic and contrived, as I often find them to be in Shakespeare’s comedies, but the result is the same: Beatrice and Benedick are united at last before the curtain falls and the audience can’t help but cheer for this happy union. Part of the reason for this is that both Wirkus’ Beatrice and Olson’s Benedick have a certain vulnerability to them; when they are not trading barbs, they are both deeply moved by the developing situation between Hero and Claudio and behind their stated determination to stay unwed one can find small glimmers of longing to find the type of love and connection that Hero and Claudio have found with one another. It is this longing that helps the audience look past the simple contrivances that push them together, as what these schemes uncover is the potential for connection that was already there, despite their protests to the contrary.
Much Ado About Nothing plays this weekend and next, Thursday through Sunday April 11-13 & 18-20, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students. The production is a delight for Shakespeare fans and novices alike, and is a wonderful end to a season of great productions at the Burtness Theatre.
Tags: Ali Angelone, Brad Reisig, Brett Olson, Brian Dempcy, Burtness Theater, Burtness Theatre, Christa Robinson, comedy, costume design, Daniel Dutot, Daniella Lima, Darin Kerr, Emily Elizabeth, Emily Elizabeth Hogenson, Emily Wirkus, Jacqueline DeGraff, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Jordan Wolfe, Judith Butler, love story, Marilyn Gregoire, masquerade ball, Michel Foucault, Michelle Spencer Davidson, mistaken identities, Much Ado About Nothing, Patrick Kloeckner, Phillip Muehe, production design, romantic comedy, set deisgn, Shakespeare, soldiers, UND Theater, UND Theatre, UND Theatre Department, William Shakespeare