In an interview with Heather Helinsky for the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s newsletter about his (then) upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing, director Jim Christy notes, “I think that unless a director creates a context that grabs people in some way, you’re not doing your work. The play’s original context of Shakespeare’s time is gone and will never come back — it was that moment in cultural history.” Christy’s chosen context for Much Ado is post-WWII Italy, with a touch of inspiration from Federico Fellini. The result is not particularly flashy, but ultimately an entertaining and satisfying production.
Interestingly, for a play that offers several stand-out roles, the cast proves to be almost aggressively balanced. Eleanor Handley and Rob Kahn give strong performances as Beatrice and Benedick, but do not dominate the show — or each other, for that matter. Handley’s Beatrice fires off her barbs with devastating precision, while Kahn’s Benedick prefers a wider target for his verbal devastation; Handley and Kahn’s characterization of the couple clearly explains much of their previous antagonism, while also demonstrating the complementary wit (and penchant for physical comedy) that indicates their mutual compatibility. Larry Bull as Don Pedro provides an affable presence throughout the production, countered by Tom Degnan’s Don John with a polite mask barely covering his sinister machinations. Anthony Reimer, Carey Van Driest, with John Capelletti, Matt Kleckner, and Jay Slaton, deliver an entertainingly clownish rendition of Dogberry, Verges, and the Messina Watch; more unexpectedly, Jo Triss as Leonato’s sibling (now Antonia) livens some of the more serious scenes of the play with her fierce and funny portrayal of an Italian matron on a rampage.
One of the production’s strengths is its sense of place, nicely realized in the costuming and sets. Costume designer Sam Fleming provides a serviceable array for the cast; while there are no stand-out pieces (with the possible exception of Don John’s outfits, including a black fascist uniform complete with riding crop, which hilariously not only underlines but also italicizes and bolds his status as a “plain-dealing villain”), this is more in keeping with the production’s setting in post-war Italy. Period sharply-cut uniforms, colorful and neatly-pressed dresses, and relaxed menswear signal a renewal in fortunes and attitudes more significant than the relative simplicity of their design would suggest without context. Scenic designer Thom Weaver manages a slightly deeper level of detail: the main backdrop is the two-storey façade of Leonato’s house of worn but cared-for stucco with a charming fountain out front, as well as window-boxes of red flowers and even a laundry-line to add a nice touch of verisimilitude. However, the set’s realism, which satisfyingly combines with the overall feel of the production’s setting, is puzzlingly undercut because it is so obviously a façade, where all the doors stand open to the vaguely colored backdrop and the laundry line apparently continues uninterrupted through the whole top floor. It’s a jarring metatheatrical detail that does not really serve the production.
However, for the most part director Jim Christy does make such details work for him. The production’s music, for example, is based on the works of Nino Rota, a contemporaneous composer who not only later scored several of Zeffirelli’s Shakespearean films but also The Godfather trilogy, which receives several nods whenever Don John is on the stage. The post-war setting, apart from adding a little local (or rather temporal) color to the play’s action in Messina, lends itself to some ingenious extrapolation of the play’s themes: the wacky hijinks become a response to the ended privations of war, while the intense shaming of Hero for her alleged unfaithfulness to Claudio resonates with what Christy refers to as the “patriarchal machismo” of mid-twentieth century Italy. His insight into the text is not just limited to adapting it to his chosen time period. His recontextualization of Hero’s “revenge” on Claudio as a prank, albeit one carried out with some seriousness, calls back to her and her father’s participation in the ones played on Benedick and Beatrice, offering a stronger through-line of everyone’s characterization as well as helping to even out the sometimes abrupt tone shifts of the play’s latter acts.
While there are few surprises in this rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, Christy provides more than enough contextual touches to mull over as the cast and crew deliver a pleasingly solid production worthy of the high standards of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.