SALT LAKE CITY — Shakespeare is hard to sell. Any director approaching a production of a Shakespeare play is faced with serious obstacles like making the story clear, relevant, and interesting to an audience that may have seen the same story two or three times before. Walking in to Pioneer Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing, I was afraid that it was going to be a “bold reimagining” that would be trying too hard to overcome these obstacles. I was pleasantly surprised.
For those who don’t know, Much Ado is a comedy about love, perception, and morality that centers on two sets of lovers, Hero and Claudio (who are innocent and genuine) and Beatrice and Benedick (who are independent and slightly jaded). Director Matt August has successfully created a fantasy world where a plot prizing chivalry, honor, virtue, and virginity can authentically play out without seeming antiquated. The look is a Technicolor version of Game of Thrones—time out of time—where armor is needed and women defying gender roles (as Beatrice does) is both charmingly tolerated and slightly disturbing. I was pleased to see that Beatrice’s contrary (by Elizabethan standards) nature was not just a “bitchy” character trait, but an active rebellion against the standards of the society in which she existed. Rebecca Watson as Beatrice and T. Ryder Smith as Benedick shine as the unlikely lovers, exchanging barbs and decrying marriage at every turn. They are exactly what these two should be: a little older, a little wiser, and a little warier of “happily ever after.” Their chemistry is clear, but the two actors are strongest during the scenes where they are overhearing the other’s love for them. Benedick’s transformation from rough-and-tumble knight to love-sick gentleman is beauteous, while Beatrice’s softening from Amazonian independence to emotional vulnerability is delicate and slightly bittersweet. The whole scope of the duo’s complicated relationship is portrayed in those two funny yet poignant scenes.
Equally strong are Terrell Donnell Sledge as Claudio and Ashley Wickett as Hero. These young lovers are the antithesis of Beatrice and Benedick: all sighs and hope and romance. It is very easy for these characters to become lighter versions of Romeo and Juliet—lacking substance and maturity. Yet Sledge and Wickett depict the rush and optimism of new love with genuineness while still keeping the young lovers three dimensional.
Both love stories are bolstered by an excellent supporting cast. Supporting characters in a Shakespeare play can easily turn stock and boring, with little to do but recite the lines while the lovers frolic. Fortunately, this world and August’s direction included rich characterizations that serve the story, not just mechanically move it along. John Ahlin, as Hero’s father Leonato, is by turns regal in his robes and furs and delightfully animated while playacting to convince Benedick that Beatrice loves him. Colleen Baum serves double duty as an adorably vacant gentlewoman and then a wise and earthy (and spectacularly adorned) Mystic who officiates over the requisite weddings. David Manis as the prince and military leader Don Pedro provides authority and gravitas but playfully meddles in the love lives of those who serve him.
The villain of Much Ado is the hardest to get right. Don John, the prince’s morose and slightly evil brother, is often flat. But Christopher DuVal gives John’s machinations to ruin Claudio and Hero’s happiness sophistication and roots his villainy in intellectual superiority and a lack of recognition rather than pettiness. John’s cohorts Borachio (Tobin Atkinson) and Conrad (Michael Jean Dozier) show the rougher side of being in the prince’s service: that not everything is valor and knightly duty and sometimes it’s just more fun being a little naughty. Atkinson is especially good at making the plot to ruin Hero clear. It is more of a job or a prank than a malicious act, and when it goes bad, Borachio is sincerely sorry for the hurt he has caused.
The performances and light tone make this production thoroughly enjoyable. The set by James Noone creates a vast and fanciful world that grounds the action of the play. Paul Miller’s lights, Scott Killian’s score, Joshua C. Hight’s sound design, and Amanda French’s hair and make-up design all layer lushness to create a truly memorable theatrical experience.
As much as I enjoyed the production, there are three things I struggled with almost to distraction. The first was the confounding use of a countertenor as the musician of the piece. Shakespearean comedies often have songs as part of the text and productions vary on how to deal with them. August presents them as high-pitched warbled ballads and easy jokes. The tone and quality of Miles David Romney’s voice cannot be denied, but this version of the character of Balthazar was unclear (in both purpose and words) and repetitive. My second struggle came with the treatment of the characters of Dogberry and the watch. Dogberry is like the town warden, and his main attribute is his mismanagement of language. Max Robinson is always appealing on stage and is more than capable of delivering Dogberry’s malapropisms with endearment. I felt that the humor was lost with what appeared to be an after-thought choice of using children as the watch and that this turned Dogberry into a shade of Fagin, rather than a man of the law. Finally, I struggled with the costumes designed by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward. While the armor, mythic furs, and robes that gave this world its fantasy vibe were impressive and beautifully crafted, there was a lack of connection between genders and classes. This was clearest in the jarring juxtaposition of Leonato in embroidered floor length robes and Dogberry in a dirt caked henley and yellow galoshes. It also felt as if the actors were acting around the costumes rather than with them, something that detracted considerably from the performance for me.
My struggles aside, the opening night audience was warm and receptive, laughing often and buzzing positively at intermission. Readers should be aware that the play does run close to two hours and forty minutes with intermission and parking is heavily impacted by construction on the new law library.