Two camera operators shoot footage of the characters throughout the play, “broadcasting” it live on monitors on either side of the stage. The action takes place on the proscenium and on the floor in front of the audience, creating an intimate, up-close feel to everything that is taking place. Rather than distracting from the performances, it is a subtle effect that reminds us of the artistic theme of this interpretation, but does not overshadow the actors and their work. By recording the actors and projecting their close-up visages on TV screens, it ran the risk of showing the differences in the two media. Acting for the stage is often broader than acting for film and television, where more subtle emoting is preferred. But the intimate blocking and staging by Emerson and the talents of the cast avoided that trap, resulting in nuanced performances by all. The camera gimmick that might have come across as an annoying diversion instead worked wonderfully, complementing the live action, which was still the main focus of the theatrical experience.
Shakespeare’s convoluted plot deals with guests at the house of Leonato, the governor of Messina, after a successful battle. Leonato throws a masquerade party and his daughter Hero prepares to wed Claudio, a lord and soldier. The couple, along with the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro, try to make an amorous match between Leonato’s orphaned niece Beatrice and Benedick, another lord and soldier, and friend of Claudio. Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John, however, with the aid of his companions Borachio and Conrad, tries to ruin the pending nuptials and stir some trouble by starting a rumor that Hero is far from chaste and virtuous. Chaos ensues until the truth unfolds, the villains are captured, and all ends well in traditional Shakespearean comic fashion.
The production’s format makes Leonato’s house the setting for a reality television show. The set and lighting, designed by Jonathan Emerson and Joseph Sebring, believably recreate the atmosphere of a reality show locale. The soliloquies feel like confession room segments on Big Brother or solo side interviews on Survivor. The masked party feels likes a decadent bash that we would see on Temptation Island or Paradise Hotel. As the characters manipulate each other and scheme behind each others' backs, and as the frivolous jesting mushrooms into tense confrontations, the resulting tears and anger would not be out of place in any episode of The Bachelor or The Hills.
Timothy J. Cox plays Leonato as a Donald Trump-type host straight out of The Apprentice, a man used to the spotlight, his large portrait hanging on the wall, playing to the cameras, the first to show up in costume for the masquerade festivities, opening his liquor cabinet to his guests (because we all know that a little bit of alcohol reduces inhibitions, resulting in the best booze-induced drama, ready to be caught on camera). But fun times lead to sober moments, and the best scenes in Shakespeare’s comedy are actually his most serious: the heart-wrenching aborted marriage ceremony when Hero is accused of being a loose woman in front of everyone, and later when Leonato, Antonio, and then Benedick confront Claudio and Don Pedro claiming that their accusations have killed the heartbroken and innocent maiden. Cox shows his wide range, from the happy-go-lucky Hugh Hefner-like master-of-the-house to the conflicted father, forgetting the cameras, eyes brimming with tears as the laughs turn to the horror before him.