Official Review of Much Ado About Nothing at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival by Cassidy Cash | May 5, 2018 | I reviewed two plays this day at Alabama Shakespeare Festival. You can read my review of Twelfth Night here.

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the performance of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the beautiful Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery, AL. Redacted down to just 90 minutes, this version of Much Ado About Nothing was a portable gem. While missing some of the strong supporting characters, like a truly hilarious Dogberry, the small cast of characters were delightful and allowed Shakespeare's language to truly shine.

It is always a joy to spend a day at the theater, but to spend it at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival was a privilege. The festival itself is one of the ten largest Shakespeare festivals in the world, housing a rotating repertory company, and performing 2-3 Shakespeare plays among their annual 10 or so productions. Founded in 1972, it’s clear that much like a great spirit, the festival only betters with age. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival houses two stage setups, one is called The Festival and the other is called The Octagon. Much Ado was staged in the Octagon.

Smaller, and more intimate, your first impression upon walking in to this theater is that you’re about to be a part of something special. This production did not disappoint on that score.

The much smaller, 225-seat Octagon Theater was laid out much like I would expect The Globe Theater to be (I plan to compare the photos and diagrams to the real thing when we take our trip in 2019). There was an apron stage but it wasn’t elevated. The seats were aligned around a large rectangle that jutted out into the audience. The seats were tiered the way you expect in a modern theater (no groundlings standing around) but during the production, the actors would come out into the audience as if we, the audience, we a part of the production. During their entrances and exits, they arrived and departed, many time, using the same aisles we had walked in on to take our seats.

Throughout the play, the actors would address us directly, drawing us into their world; involving us in their thoughts, conversations, and antics. At one point, Beatrice left the edges of the floor and came into the audience and we helped “hide” her from Leonato (Collin Purcell) and Hero (Lara Treacy) as they talked of Benedick’s (Woodrow Proctor) love for her and Beatrice was hiding to avoid being seen. Incidentally, this scene and the Benedick-parallel was brilliantly played. Easily competing for status of “star of the show” was just how expertly this physical comedy scene was choreographed on stage. Lambert would bring this particular choreography skill to the stage again in Twelfth Night and in a similar fashion (even after having seen it done just hours previously) the effect was riotous. Woodrow Proctor excelled at playing these physical comedy situations where his facial and verbal expressions need to flow with expert choreography.

Throughout the play the action was not only on the stage, but the entire room was transformed into the Italian countryside. During the marriage fiasco scene when Hero is so wrongfully shamed, I had to fight the urge to cry out and urge Claudio not to abandon her, so strong was the feeling of being their friend; standing beside them just as Benedick and Beatrice were. The result was complete immersion into the story that I can only believe was very much like what the apron stage at The Globe afforded this production when Shakespeare staged it over 400 years ago. This cast took full advantage of the material Shakespeare gave them when involving the audience and truly drawing them in.

At its’ heart, the story is a comedy all about love, misunderstanding, and strong obstinacy. At the play’s start, Beatrice (Katie Fanning), Hero, (Laura Treacy), and the Messenger (Brian Ott), give the requisite announcements of turning off your cell phones and respecting the no-photography rule during the production. These announcements are done delightfully in character before the action of the stage begins.

The country is at war and a set of fellow countrymen are retuning home from battle. Leonato opens his home to welcome Don Pedro of Aragon (Ithamar Francois), a highly respected nobleman, his illegitimate-brother Don John (Josh Cahn), and Claudio (Colin Wulff), a brave soldier who has won many honors in the fight.

We learn almost immediately that Beatrice has a long lasting feud featuring a battle of wits with Benedick, a man who holds the same regard for her. The audience is made aware that for everyone involved, the love/hate relationship between Benedick and Beatrice is an enigma. No one is really sure whether it’s love or actual malice provoking their sharp tonged battles, but the ferocity of their fierce trading of verbal blades remind us why the pen is mightier than the sword.

Claudio and Hero fall immediately in love with a wedding being planned almost as quick. Don John, being the somewhat random villain in this version of the tale, takes it upon himself to, from apparently sheer spite, to ruin their nuptials by making it seem as if Hero was a liar who carouses with other men at night.

He succeeds in his plan and a truly tragic scene of Hero’s embarrassment ensues, followed by the very Romeo and Juliet like occurrence of a friar arranging to fake Hero’s death to prove Claudio’s love for her. Overlaying this story of much woe, is the hilarious banter between Benedick and Beatrice. We watch as the two lovers are by arrangement of their friends forced to acknowledge and act upon their true feelings for one another. We see Benedick take brash action to prove his love to Beatrice, and in true Shakespearean fashion, very serious topics and emotional drama are dealt a dose of humor that leaves you stitches from having laughed so hard.

This particular cast was unique in that it was so small, with just 8 individuals doubling up on some of the supporting cast. Francois, Proctor, Treacy, and Purcell each play a member of the watch in addition to their title characters while Fanning plays Dogberry’s assistant, Verges, in addition to playing Beatrice and Brian Ott, masterfully, plays three roles in this production bringing to life Dogberry, the Friar, and the Messenger. Only Josh Cahn plays just a single role, and that because his character is on stage at the same time as all of the other supporting cast members at one point or another in the production meaning it would have been challenging for him to double up.

This play was severely redacted, fitting the entire story into just 90 minutes. For comparison, when this play was done at The Globe in 2011, the running time was 2 hours and 45 minutes, nearly twice that of this production.

The result of such a severe cut in the content was two fold. First, it allows the production to be well suited to a small cast, which was ASF’s intention. This group travels with this play extensively, performing it at various venues around the Southeast so they needed to make the production portable, accomplishing that feat by cutting many of the supporting characters and scenes.

The core of the play was maintained, with the banter between Benedick and Beatrice remaining a highlight of this production, and the story of Claudio and Hero comes through.

However, other notable characters, which are so unique to Much Ado, really weren’t given their due. Dogberry, for example, is a pivotal role in the play, being the reason the play ends up as a comedy instead of tragedy in the most critical sense, because it’s Dogberry (despite his blundering) who captures of the villain and saves the day. While they do include Dogberry in this production, I felt he was not given the setup he deserves and the audience simply doesn’t have time to get to know him. Therefore, when he uses his infamous malapropisms, they hit your ear as random nonsense rather than the hilarious Dogberry character he was intended to be. The jokes don’t have the setup time to be funny, and it felt as if his character was rather crammed into the production as an afterthought to the story out of necessity.

Additionally, the scene with the Watch was odd. I felt the audience did not understand why we were seeing this scene, the reality of what “setting the watch” means being foreign to most modern audiences, or at least to anyone who is not a student of the history behind Shakespeare’s plays. This confusion was further complicated in this scene by the fact that the characters were doubled up, so the audience had to actively remember that this character was a new one, not the Benedick or Hero we’d seen previously. In my opinion, while the doubling up on characters did create a kind of blip in the continuum of the action itself, the impact was not dire on the experience of the story as whole. In fact, the overall strong comedic skills of the actors themselves allowed the audience to participate with them in the execution of this device.

In terms of their adaption of the original production, let me give you some clarity there. We have two version of the play, the Quarto version and the Folio version. The Quarto is considered the “authoritative version”, having been copied from Shakespeare’s draft of the play. The Folio is a copy of a copy, or a transcription of the Quarto version. These copies were all done by hand and consequently, there are some notable differences between the versions including various spellings, words, and stage directions which are different. Modern directors of the play are left to decide on their own what version, what word, and which stage directions they want to use in their version of Shakespeare’s works.

In this version, Director Greta Lambert, hosts almost all of the play’s action in the garden outside of Leonato’s home. The set never changes during the production, though some changes in lighting indicate a different outdoor location, all of the scenes are done out of doors.

In Act II, when Benedick says “I told him true, that your Grace had got the goodwill of this young lady…” the “lady” he’s referring to is Hero. In the Quarto version of the play, Hero enters before he says that line, but that creates an oddity that Don Pedro and Benedick are exchanging banter about the wooing of Hero while she’s on stage, leading some directors to have Leonato and Hero enter later, but this one line of Benedick’s referencing “this young lady” implies she’s already on stage. Lambert apparently agreed with the Quarto version because she had Hero already there for that line as well.

Much of Act III was redacted, and they had three speaking watchmen. There is another conflict between the Quarto and Folio versions of the play as to what word Benedick calls Claudio when he and the Prince are singing over love. Shakespeare was known to stage that line with reference to one of his patrons in the audience, so the Folio version uses the name of a man that had cultural significance in the 16th century, while the Quarto version uses a more broadly applicable slang term. In Lambert’s version, he calls Claudio “Monsieur Love,” again agreeing with what is written in the Quarto.

Benedick and Claudio interact well on stage and the language shines through in this play. Stand out performances from Collin Purcell and Katie Fanning for their impressive comedic skills on stage.

Woodrow Proctor has a great mastery of the Shakespearean language, seamlessly able to bring to life an old phraseology, allowing even an inexperienced audience to follow the hilarity and emotion very clearly. His visual mannerisms are on the level with Steve Martin’s comedy in film, being over-the-top just enough to provide the comedic emphasis where you need it without feeling overdone.

Collin Purcell was the one to watch from this play. He is very comfortable on stage, melting into his role effortlessly and his execution seemed flawless. His supportive comedy performance is strong and I hope to see more from him in future.

This production of Much Ado About Nothing demonstrated the strength of repertory theater, using a repertoire cast, and having the actors build a strong relationship that can shine on stage. The strength of the actors combined with the expert venue so similar to that of The Globe itself, really lets the beauty and language of Shakespeare shine as it was intended.

I encourage you to keep an eye out for Shakespeare at ASF and to go see their productions when you can. Their theater and their company does his work justice and gives respect to the name of Shakespeare which their title bears. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is located at 1 Festival Drive Montgomery, AL 36117. For tickets call 334.271.5353 or visit their website at www.asf.net

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