Nick Manfredi (Benedick) and Jennifer Holcombe (Beatrice)
Summer at THEATREWORKS means Shakespeare, and we are well under way with our production of Much Ado About Nothing. Over the past six months, I have spent a great deal of time thinking back through the history of THEATREWORKS' Shakespeare productions. My own involvement with this tradition dates to 1982, and a production of Richard III we performed at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Colorado Springs has a long history of supporting Shakespeare — through attendance, donations, and enthusiastic encouragement.
This season is especially poignant with the passing of THEATREWORKS’ Founding Artistic Director, Murray Ross. Murray was a colleague, a friend and a mentor. As he did with so many people, Murray taught me an enormous amount about theatre and inspired many events in my life. I started as an actor in his productions, and in 1993 he was gracious and enthusiastic about taking me on as his Assistant Director for summer Shakespeare. Starting with The Winter’s Tale in Dwire Auditorium, Murray and I directed about fifteen productions over the years, including: The Merchant of Venice, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cymbeline, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and last year’s Antony and Cleopatra. Our working relationship was symbiotic. We knew how to do these shows, and though preparing Shakespeare for performance is always a challenge, we worked together in a comfortable way I never expected when we started as a directing team twenty-five years ago.
Shakespeare was Murray’s baby, and he was good at it. Of course, everyone is wondering if the tradition can continue. Of course it can. And no one would have wanted that more than Murray.
Much Ado is an often-produced play and is considered one of Shakespeare’s mature comedies. It was written in 1598, just before he turned his attention to Julius Caesar and Henry V. It is also the comedic predecessor of what many consider the apex of his comedies, Twelfth Night. So, the play is in good company.
Our production is set in the late nineteenth century in an American western town — sort of Shakespeare meets Gunsmoke. The play, originally set in sixteenth century Messina, Italy, is ostensibly about relationships between two sets of couples, and the machinations necessary to arrange the right people to be in love with each other. From that perspective, the play is entertaining, engaging and well worth a production in 2017. Our director, Jane Page, and our lively cast will provide a raucous, fast-moving rendition of this classic play.
Scholars have written a good deal about the title and suggest the last word would have been pronounced more like “noting” than “nothing.” Indeed, the play includes many moments of one character noting, often in the form of overhearing, something unusual about someone else and acting on that information, correct or not. Beatrice and Benedick each, in their own scenes, are the subject of practical jokes in which their friends share misinformation about the other’s love interest. But there are many more moments. The evil subplot of the play is initiated by Borachio overhearing news of the intended marriage proposal of Claudio. The Watch, those comic bunglers who end up being the heroes of the play, overhear the villains plotting their evil deeds. And the entire story begins with a note — where Leonato “learns in this letter” of the arrival of Don Pedro.
In the world of Much Ado, gender roles take center stage. Beatrice and Benedick, ably portrayed in our production by the energetic and delightful Jennifer Holcombe and Nick Manfredi, are the locus of this issue. Beatrice rewrites the conventional role of women, and we love her all the more for it. In her advice about marriage for her cousin, Hero, she quips, “…it is my cousin’s duty to say ‘Father, as it please you.’ But yet, for all that cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy, and say, ‘Father, as it please me.’” Beatrice is rare among Shakespearean women for this quality (though Cleopatra has her moments!), and there are times when our ears, listening to Beatrice, anticipate the changing role of women over past decades.
While the play is a comedy, Much Ado is often categorized into that group known as “problem comedies.” There is a happy resolution (albeit with marriage reestablishing the traditional social norm that, in our day, seems less successful and popular). Yet the resolution leaves us with doubt, mainly because, as with the challenges of our own times, the issues of the play are complicated. Many of the men express little compassion or trust in women. Leonato, played by THEATREWORKS’ perennial favorite Robert Rais, is too ready to believe that his daughter, Hero, has been unfaithful. Claudio, Hero’s fiancé, finds the “noted” (and false) infidelity of Hero true and repugnant. He publicly defames her at the altar instead of marrying her. In all of this, Shakespeare is merely reflecting life. There are rarely moments when pure good triumphs. Happy endings have a dark side, the “jade’s trick” we can never avoid.
Perhaps the most delightful aspect of the play is the role of the clowns, Dogberry, Verges and The Watch. Dogberry is the comic focal point of the play, and in our production, we’ve cast the remarkable Leslie O’Carroll as a rough and ready female sheriff! She and Verges continue a multi-play tradition in Shakespeare of the malaprop, the character who searches for the right word and finds it — almost. Ironically, it is only they who can solve the problem of the play, reassuring us that we may find our own Dogberries when the need arises, occasionally stumbling into the right answer when all seems lost. Dogberry, lost for any comment at all, manages simply, “God save, the foundation!”
Much Ado About Nothing. Is it nothing, in the end? Are the mistakes we all make about love, truth and marriage actually not that important? I believe Shakespeare meant the title ironically. There is much at stake in the play, and much relief in the end. From July 27 through August 19, we will journey to wild west Messina, to the edge of the American frontier. You will be in familiar territory — the good guys will wear white, the bad guys black, the girls will be in frills, and the sheriff and her deputies will “apprehend aspicious persons.” There will be surprises, and there may be a shock or two. Come join us at Rock Ledge Ranch, you won’t be disappointed.