Having seen and performed in a number of William Shakespeare’s plays in my lifetime, the hypothetical question always arises: “If the Bard were alive today, what would he write?” Since Shakespeare’s plays in his own time were such crowd-pleasers, it is easy to imagine the playwright of Avon churning out screenplays for Hollywood blockbusters or stories for Broadway or West End musicals and plays. I’ve even heard one or two people suggest that he might have become a staff writer for a daily televised soap opera. Might he have scripted the allegedly unscripted reality shows that have overtaken virtually every channel on the boob tube?
The talented cast and crew of Queens Shakespeare imagine such a heresy in their new production of Much Ado About Nothing and the results are surprisingly entertaining. The subtitle is Real World: Messina and like MTV’s trendsetting and pioneering reality program, the new staging of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy brings the shenanigans of lovelorn couples in Sicily to a modern-day mansion turned television studio where cameras record the houseguests' every public and private moment and we, the audience, serve as captivated voyeurs.
Jonathan Emerson makes his New York directorial debut with this little show at the Bowne Street Church in Flushing, and it is quite the accomplishment. A teaser video sets the tone, nicely capturing the feeling of the competitive reality genre in which real people agree to have their lives documented by television crews in an effort to gain fame and fortune. Those shows tend to be full of artificial drama as the editors (and participants) try to spark scandal and controversy in a quest for high ratings and publicity. The curtain rises and the live action scenarios that unfold before our eyes make it perfectly clear that the comedy and drama that stemmed from the mind and quill of William Shakespeare are as timely and relevant as ever.
In the program, Emerson writes what you might be thinking: “A Shakespearean comedy staged as a trashy reality TV show… what???” He explains: “We hope to illuminate the classical text by showing that the circumstances and characters are relatable, or at least relatable to what we see in our own living rooms every day on TV. Much Ado About Nothing is driven by gossip, slander, and scandal and nothing embodies these elements quite like the sordid world of reality television.”
I admit, I was skeptical of the concept (which Emerson credits cast members Matt Coonrod and Daniel Koenig with help in conceiving), but the result is an intriguing interpretation that does indeed showcase Shakespeare’s words in a fascinating new context. Some of the historic wartime back story of the tale is lost in the contemporary setting, and some plot points that were cultural norms at the time of Shakespeare become jarringly archaic when seen from a modern perspective, but the depth of character, the universal themes of the human condition, and the beauty of the language remain, proving once again that Shakespeare’s masterpieces are excellent sources for constant reimagining.
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.
The spark for all the mayhem is Don John, a man “not of many words,” a bitter, villainous puppet-master who yearns to throw his own melancholy cloud over others' joy. In the original text, the motivation for his dark nature is hinted at through his few lines and the description by others. Andrew Stephen Johnson plays Don John’s hatred and jealousy of his brother Don Pedro, when forced to be his subordinate, as the ultimate anti-social reality show villain. Tossing cups, kicking chairs, spitting at pictures, Johnson’s portrayal reminded me of Puck – not Shakespeare’s sprite Robin Goodfellow, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the rebellious, antagonistic, anarchist David Rainey who eventually was evicted from The Real World: San Francisco for all the trouble he caused.
The heart of the play should be Benedick and Beatrice, whose sharp-witted barbs, fiery interplay, and denouncement of love and marriage make their eventual union a satisfying conclusion, and Matthew Coonrod and Sheira Feuerstein do a nice job of expressing that emotional journey (especially the lovely Ms. Feuerstein, whose energy and timing were a constant pleasure to watch). But the real heart of the play in this production were the brilliant and genuine performances by Daniel Koenig as Claudio and Maria Smith as Hero. Their chemistry was perfect, from the love they showed each other at the beginning, to the raw rage and grief they exhibited as the scandalous lies drew them apart, and to the profound, tender emotion they evoked at their reconciliation – hesitant and frightened, but completely believable. Coonrod and Feuerstein do a commendable job of bringing laughter and passion to their keystone roles, but Koenig and Smith were transcendent in parts that in other productions are often eclipsed by the more showy characters.
Such high praise is merited when actors take their roles to new levels, making them their own, adding nuances even when there are few or no lines to speak. This version of Much Ado About Nothing had plenty of examples of smaller characters stepping up and making an impactful contribution to the story, ingraining themselves in my mind: Ashley Adelman as the seductive pawn Margaret; Ari Lew as the shaggy-haired, scheming sidekick Conrad; Nikki Bohm as the stunning Messenger and (together with Antonia Villalon) the Charlie’s Angels-type members of the Watch; and Heidi Zentz as Dogberry’s hunched companion Verge.
Lawrence Lesher brought a deadpan style and fantastic comedic skill to his depiction of the side-splittingly hilarious character Dogberry. Alex Simmons brought dimension and humanity to Borachio. Patrick Mahoney’s deep voice and towering stature brought integrity to his portrayal of Friar Francis and power to his representation of Antonio.
It is a real joy to see a production team and group of talented young actors take a chance on an idea and fully commit to it, and then witness the successful results. Even if you hate reality shows, the concept works here and makes Shakespeare’s story of betrayal, sabotage, gossip, and most important, love, feel as pertinent today as ever.
Queens Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing continues on Thursday, November 12 at 7 p.m., Friday, November 13 at 7 p.m., and Saturday, November 14 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 at smartix.com or call (212) 868-4444, or at the door. The theater is located at Bowne Street Church at 143-11 Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, NY 11354. Free parking is available on-site or take the 7 train to Main Street.