Much Ado About Nothing may be the most grounded of William Shakespeare's comedies, as there are no fairies and goddesses, no teenage lovers wandering off into the woods — just a pair of sweethearts who have been hurt too many times, and another pair for whom heartbreak is new. If you were to take this grounded comedy and set it in the scandalous world of reality television, where emotions run high and maturity levels are often called into question, what would the results be?
Director Jonathan Emerson tried to answer that very question with his production of the play that opened this past Thursday at the Bowne Street Community Church in Flushing for Queens Shakespeare, Inc. I wish I could tell you that Mr. Emerson's production was as grounded as the Shakespeare text, but sadly, it is not the case.
From start to finish, his reality-television-conceptualized production is more than a little confusing, with strokes that are very broad, but not very specific. Story and even technical issues, such as lighting the stage (although admittedly, the Bowne Street Community Church may not be the most ideal space for such a production) were mostly tossed out the window in favor of the reality television concept, which included two distracting cameramen who followed the action of each scene, but proved to be nothing but eyesores. It is a pity because even though Mr. Emerson's concept fell with a resounding thud, most of the members of his 15-person cast managed to play through the distractions and gave good, even great performances.
When Don Pedro of Arragon (a noble and commanding Zach Locuson) and his men return to Messina after the war (although they are dressed as if they are returning from a night of clubbing), they are received by the governor Leonato (the always genial and gregarious Timothy J. Cox) at his estate for a month of celebration and revels. Romance seems to be in the very air, and soon love blossoms for the young Count Claudio (a fantastic Daniel Koenig) and Hero (a rather bland and indifferent Maria Smith), Leonato’s daughter.
In Don Pedro's entourage there is one Benedick (Matthew Coonrod, who works hard, but comes up short), a stout soldier and quick wit, who, when not at real war, is at a war of words with Beatrice (Sheira Feurstein, instantly likable), Leonato’s equally witty niece. Don Pedro's misanthropic brother Don John (a very dull Andrew Stephen Johnson) does his level best to ruin the revelry, but his lies are brought to light with the help of the dim-witted constable Dogberry (Lawrence Lesher, delightfully loopy) and his partner Verges (a darling Heidi Zenz ). Don John and his compatriots Borachio and Conrade (Alex Simmons and Ari Lew, both energetic) are brought to justice and weddings and wooing go forth as planned.
Just before the play began, the audience was treated to a brief video teaser to the production titled The Real World of Messina, which introduced the characters of the play in their reality TV form. Mildly amusing, yes, but it proves my point that the concept doesn't work. While characters like the scheming Don John and the feuding Benedick and Beatrice may, from an archetypal standpoint I suppose, fit into the world of reality television, other characters like Dogberry and Leonato, who play major roles in the movement of the story and the plot, do not. Mr. Emerson should have tossed the reality TV concept out the window and preserved the story, as that is what matters.
Again, it is a pity, as there was a lot of potential on that stage Thursday night, but with a concept that provided nothing but distraction after distraction from the story and the text, clearly there is still some work to be done.
My advice to Mr. Emerson: In the future, instead of broad concepts, stick to the text.
Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Bowne Street Community Church until November 14th.