Set in a Caribbean culture in Washington, DC, Director Timothy Douglas’s Much Ado About Nothing uniquely captures the comedy, absurdity, and the tension of a tale of love and deception. Stepping outside of its traditional setting, Douglas uses a Caribbean backdrop to better spotlight the women’s perspective in a play that is normally male-driven. Says Douglas in his “Director’s Notes,” the Caribbean culture weighs heavily on a “matriarch-driven model,” allowing Douglas to even out the male-female power struggle of the play.
With such a strong and provocative setting, this is a vibrant show that successfully juggles both comedy and drama, while avoiding melodramatic moments that can sometimes emerge when dealing with the bizarre plots twists that are illustrated in Much Ado. (I refer mostly to Hero’s “death” and resurfacing, complete with Claudio’s line: Another Hero!”) The colorful and festive set mirrors a street in Washington, DC, complete with rusting lawn chairs, a large grill, a multi-leveled porch, and even a DC trash can proudly stamped with the stripes and stars of the DC flag. Weaving in and out of this Shakespearean playground is a pleasingly strong, multiracial cast, most of whom speak with a Caribbean accent. This works in a unique way by drawing out the melodic patterns of Shakespeare’s words. The playwright’s lines of poetry are further enhanced by the dialect of the Caribbean culture—something that may come as a surprise to audience members. Though slightly jarring at first (a handful of actors are difficult to understand at points), the viewer swiftly accepts the differing speech patterns, and almost without realizing it, swims into a symphony of iambic pentameter. The lines sound more like music than dialogue when combined with the Caribbean cadence.
As mentioned previously, this Caribbean culture serves as a tool to even out the male-female power struggle throughout Much Ado. Additionally, Douglas makes an interesting choice by casting a woman as Don John’s servant, Borachio. It is this female Borachio, played by Dionne Audain, who is used as Don John’s pawn in the plot against his brother, Don Pedro (Tony Nam), and friend Claudio (Alexis Camins). Instead of the usual male servant sent to pose as an adulterous suitor to Hero (Roxi Victorian), it is a woman who carries out the plan. This turns the plot into chaos, thus giving a strange power to women in the story. Audain plays Borachio as scrappy and confident, yet slightly seductive. This gender switch creates a fascinating relationship between the menacing and absurd Don John (Joel David Santner) and his servant. Additionally, Santner impressively balances the absurdity of his character, while still coming off as slightly evil in certain scenes. It is Don John who hatches the plan to soil Hero’s reputation, and despite his sometimes vapid exterior, Don John must also portray an air of malevolence. Santner manages to be hilariously entertaining, while still maintaining the necessary depth of his character.
The strong performances by Audain and Santner are not the only ones present on the Folger stage. This production is saturated with talent, led by an amazing performance by Howard W. Overshown as Benedick. Overshown’s mastery of Shakespeare’s language makes the audience feel as if they should walk out of the theatre speaking in iambic pentameter. The actor takes Shakespeare’s lines off the page and creates art with a vigor that is rarely seen. His delivery of Benedick’s soliloquy in Act II, scene iii brought the audience to uproarious laughter and applause, pinnacled on his energetic line, “the world must be peopled!” Overshown not only entertains the audience with his comedic moments as Benedick, he also manages to silence them at darker moments. When Benedick discovers that his friends Don Pedro and Claudio deceived him into thinking Beatrice (Rachel Leslie) is in love with him, Overshown handles the moment with such delicacy, it’s as though the audience can see straight into Benedick and immediately understand his feelings of betrayal. Overshown owns this production—his presence on stage and talents with the text are mesmerizing.
Highlighting the talented cast, Douglas introduces clever aspects to the text and production, only further enlightening audiences. Music plays a large part in Folger’s Much Ado, and Craig Wallace and Matthew M. Nielson's sound design and compositions are used often during scene transitions, as well as scattered throughout many scenes, themselves. A newly introduced character, Brother (Craig Wallace), a spin-off of the original character Antonio, serves as a DJ during most of the play, standing at the highest point of the set, overlooking much of the action, and guiding the scenes with music. This adds to the flavor of the Caribbean, encompassing the audience in the culture and continuing the vibrant energy that is found throughout the show.
The unique combination of the Caribbean culture and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing makes for a brilliant evening of theatre. This show entrances the audience, and opens up new channels of discussion with its more female-leaning perspective. Entertaining while creating discourse, this production succeeds on the stage by giving new life to this “battle of the sexes” story.
Much Ado About Nothing runs October 21 – November 29 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003. Information can be found at http://www.folger.edu/whatsontype.cfm?wotypeid=2.