Rosemary Laughlin: Gender switch works better than new setting in 'Much Ado'

Rosemary Laughlin: Gender switch works better than new setting in 'Much Ado'

By ROSEMARY LAUGHLIN

Tit for tat. In Elizabethan theater, talented boys played female roles. In this version of "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Harold and Jean Miner Theatre at Parkland College, the male lead, Benedick, is played by a female — as a female — in the U.S. after World War II.

Shakespeare would understand. He mixed and matched from varied sources as he saw fit. Theatrical success with his audiences was the highest priority for financial livelihood.

Many are going to love this contemporary take. (It's been done locally with "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet.") Others will see it as a betrayal of the beloved original. Let's make a case for both.

"Much Ado" is best known for the wit-sparring, the "merry war" of repartee between Beatrice and Benedick. I believe any woman can think of girlfriends who are "Lady Tongues" toward other girls and perhaps is half of such a pair herself. Girls can "speak poniards" or "make every word stab."

But the gender transformation robs the oldest conflict of all, the battle of the sexes between men and women. Why detract from that? Why lose its resulting wisdom via Shakespeare?

I found Benedick's gender switch interesting and quite smooth. The challenge came from the distraction of being jarred by American military officers addressed as "count" or "lordship" or "Signior" or "Signiorina." And though newsreels and film clips played before the performance connected us to changing work and family roles during World War II, it is a leap to project as credible a female priest or detective. I found myself translating between the 16th and 20th centuries — a somewhat schizophrenic task. Others may not have my difficulty.

The fuss and feathers in this comedy have to do (pun intended) with matchmaking. Get ready for a laugh, yes? But not quite. Shakespeare injects an edginess to the plot with machinations by a selfish supposed friend, who feels injury to his pride and plots a cruel revenge.

Downright scary is the willingness of a lover to accept slander as truth, profoundly humiliating, indeed devastating, his bride.

Director B.J. Gailey has edited the production with plot flow as paramount. For example, he eliminated part of a scene that was later summarized. The brevity is effective, very much appreciated.

The actors are from Parkland and the wider community. Abby Gailey as Benedick is excellent; she is natural in her role — bright, decisive, strong. Chelsea Zych, playing Beatrice, first appears as Rosie the Riveter to establish her competence and accomplishment. Mathew Green is very fine as Don Pedro, the generous nice guy, who can nevertheless be tricked. David Novak as Borachio pulls off the trick with great vigor. Quinton Ohlsson has the task of being the love-smitten Claudio one minute, yet a brutal reviler at the altar.

In Shakespeare's comedies, there are usually rustics or pompous officials who made all the social classes in his audiences laugh. In "Much Ado," they are given a heroic role. They figure out the cause of injustice to the innocent heroine, report it and even provide the evidence. Monty Joyce plays Constable Dogberry with vehemence, hilariously reminding us that "ass" is a negative epithet of long-standing in English vocabulary.

As for the set, carpenters Dominick Rosales, Wyatt Simmons, Brett Jones and Kylie Moubry create a lovely house facade from floor to ceiling with wide front porch and steps to the main stage. Its windows, trim and shrubbery suggest classical Georgian style.

The wardrobe crew of Grace Wilson-Danenhower and Rijaal Akbar outfit several actors in American military uniforms that some in the audience may recall worn by their fathers and uncles. There are vintage '40s dresses, too.

Big Band-era dance and vocal music echo the post-World War II setting. They replace Shakespeare's "Hey nonny, nonny" song that paints men as "deceivers ever."

Though "without ado" and "with much ado" were long in the English language, it was apparently Shakespeare who coined "much ado about nothing." Indeed, we leave wanting to discuss exactly what "nothing" means in this play. I suspect irony is involved.

Rosemary Laughlin is a retired English teacher from University High School.

If you go

What: "Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9-11 and 16-18; 3 p.m. Nov. 12, 19.

Where: Harold and Jean Miner Theatre, Parkland College.

Tickets: $9 to $15.

More information: 217-351-2528; theatre.parkland.edu/much_ado.

 

Topics (2):Education, Theater

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