While it is perfectly accurate to say that the dramatic action of Much Ado About Nothing depends upon the characters of Beatrice and the Friar backing up Hero, most productions showcase this dynamic in Act IV, and rarely is a banjo involved. Not so the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater. Their show opens with Hero presciently singing about the perfidy of men, accompanied by her cousin and her priest, and what follows is a solidly entertaining production where slapstick and music magnify the humor of Shakespeare’s play.
The production is nominally set in post-World War II Europe, though at times this seems more like a suggestion than a guiding aesthetic. This is most evident with the costuming by designer Brian Strachan. The women sport lovely vintage-style dresses and shoes but, for example, neglect to cover their heads during a religious ceremony: a minor detail that would have caused quite the scandal in a typically pious and conservative mid-century European town. Similarly, most of the men appear in uniform, a variety of service coats and Eisenhower jackets that successfully evoke the time period but also raise confusing questions about just whose army is being welcomed into Messina. There are several high points: Margaret’s sassy red shoes signal her more liberal behavior; Don John’s aviator sunglasses (all too briefly) lend the “plain-dealing villain” a chilled and alien appearance; and Dogberry’s fedora and trench coat give him a noirish feel completely at odds with his personality but hilariously congruent with his self-importance. Overall, however, the play’s evocation of post-war Europe gives the impression that it should be briefly admired but not dwelt upon.
Lisi Stoessel’s set design is a clever adaptation of the theater’s set for Othello, currently running in repertory; two-toned stucco, a wider arch, creeping vines, and urns filled with flowers provide a romantic contrast to the tragedy’s relatively spartan scenery. Yet this too seems tangential to the setting and could comfortably serve as a backdrop for anywhere adjacent to the Mediterranean at any time during the last two thousand years. However, it does at least wonderfully complement the themes of the play itself: multiple entrances, archways within archways, windows hidden by greenery, and dappled shadows contrasting with warm lighting lend themselves perfectly to the constant conspiring and eavesdropping that drives the plot.
Alternating Much Ado and Othello offers an excellent opportunity for the cast to show their range, their tensely realistic performances giving way to broader and even playfully cartoonish portrayals in the comedy. At times, this can be a little overwhelming: one wishes that Chance Dean as Benedick would occasionally scale back the bombast, to highlight the humor of Benedick’s tendency to be bombastic at all the wrong times; or that Ian Sullivan’s sinister mania as Don John had some suitably over-the-top payoff, like the opportunity to twirl an enormous black mustache while tying a helpless damsel to some train tracks. Overall, however, the broadness of the humor fits the production. Eleni Delopoulos gives Beatrice an excess of physical energy that parallels her feverish mental activity. Her entanglement with Dean’s Benedick makes for a pleasingly screwball dynamic, along with a more subtle social awkwardness that seems entirely appropriate for two people previously hell-bent on avoiding any sort of romantic interaction.
A welcome surprise comes from the play’s other romantic duo, Claudio and Hero: Isaiah Ellis and Lauren Sowa respectively engender their characters with enough personality to almost rival Much Ado’s most famous lovers. In the first half of the play, Ellis’s Claudio handles his lovesickness with all the grace and dignity of a forlorn puppy, his coordination and attention deserting him as he faceplants repeatedly and succombs to hilariously intrusive reveries (complete with musical accompaniment) at the thought of his beloved. Sowa, meanwhile, takes a role notable for an importance to the plot disproportionate to the number of allotted lines, and makes Hero a significant presence on the stage regardless of whether she has lines or not. Her performance is pleasingly multi-layered, with Hero’s shy young love of Claudio supplemented by a prim propriety, frequent familial exasperation, and no little backbone whenever her integrity is called into question. While Ellis – and the production itself – does not quite overcome the distastefulness of Claudio’s disregard for Hero in the latter acts of the play, Sowa’s dignity throughout, and the return of Ellis’s excellent sense of comic befuddlement, sway the audience to be nearly as pleased as the lovers themselves when they finally reunite.
Despite the cast going full tilt and the play’s innate hilarity augmented by healthy helpings of sound gags and physical humor, director Domenick Scudera never allows any one element to overwhelm the rest, carefully balancing drama, comedy, and music. Judicious emendations to the text attempt to smooth the story’s progression and combine characters so that no one needs double a part. These changes flow more or less seamlessly, with the exception of Leonato’s new soliloquy about his daughter in Act V, Scene 1: of all the characters who deserve to extemporize about their current hardships while accompanied by dramatic lighting and sad music, Leonato surely falls towards the bottom of the list. Scudera notes that he purposefully ignored the setting in one area: the music, by composer and actor Patrick Lamborn (with collaboration from the rest of the cast). This organic series of compositions may not particularly reflect 1940s Europe, but proves integral to the production nevertheless. The music – typically performed by Lamborn on a variety of string instruments in-character as the Friar, with several songs by the whole ensemble – both gracefully accompanies the play and provides its own form of humor.
One wishes Scudera had similarly good reasons for giving other aspects of his chosen setting only a passing nod: post-WWII Europe, especially in the play’s original location of Italy, is a particularly apt match for Much Ado, lending itself to discussions of gender roles, social pressure, and conflict (military and otherwise) both modern and reminiscent of those in Shakespeare’s own culture. But while they might not make much sense either historically or metatextually, examples like Beatrice and Benedick’s reenactment of V-J Day in Times Square are indubitably hilarious. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater winningly realizes the aspects of the play Scudera does choose to engage with, a heady mixture of pratfalls and character work topped off with one final glorious jam session.