Much Ado About Nothing, Oh Well, Whatever, Never Mind!

I came under the influence of William Shakespeare early in high school after seeing American TV broadcasts of BBC productions of Hamlet and more importantly An Age of Kings. So I am steeped in the tragedies and not really that versed in the comedies. But a number of area theaters have been staging them in recent years, so my education continues.

And now we have the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing. But I tend to raise an eyebrow when I read promos like this one “The 90s are back in a big way! “Much Ado About Nothing” is dazzling audiences with amazing romance, sparkling wit, thrilling dance moves and an original grunge soundtrack.” And despite their presentation of As You Like It (click here to see my response) last year, I am still a bit skeptical when we move William Shakespeare in time and place…and let’s face it, with much of the contemporary theater going audience, grunge doesn’t carry as much cachet as The Beatles!

So sitting in my seat and reviewing the playbill, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And then I raised the pesky eyebrow again as I realized the background music was chamber music and not grunge and I thought maybe Music Director Dan Kazemi missed his chance to set the mood…but when the first group of musicians strolled on stage to set up the prologue (and the warning prohibitions about cell phones! LOL!), the sudden change in timbre and tone immediately brought our attention on stage. But, Dan, Dan, Dan! Grunge is more Jaguar guitar than ukulele. Just sayin’ as they used to say in the 1990s.

Alex Keiper and Nate Burger center stage, Sarah Suzuki on steps. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Photographer: Mike Brosilow

But all of that was forgotten as veteran Milwaukee actor Mark Corkins bounded on stage as Don Pedro to meet Jonathan Gillard Daly’s Leonato, a nobleman of Messina! Corkins just dominates every stage he is on and it was no different here. And he certainly made the Don Pedro we see here the professional and successful soldier that he is, and brings the swagger and certainty that you would expect from a military leader. Unfortunately despite being a solid and elegant presence as Leonato, Daly had to take just a small step back. Corkins once again shone! (side note: we need more Mark Corkins in Milwaukee…beyond his over the top depiction of Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol)

Mark Corkins and Nate Burger, Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Photographer: Mike Brosilow

But the main story here as in so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, is the plight and confusion and some subterfuge around our young lovers, the love stricken Claudio as played by Kenneth Hamilton and the object of his passion, Leonato’s daughter, Hero played by Sarah Suzuki. Hamilton and Suzuki both exemplified the passion and giddiness of young love. But of course, their happiness couldn’t go unchallenged as Don Pedro’s jealous sister, Don John, played by Michelle Shupe, put into play a subplot to besmirch Hero’s fidelity to Claudio…successfully too. That results in high drama and tension as Claudio denounces Hero at the altar and then leaves as she swoons and many in attendance presume her to be dead.

Kenneth Hamilton and Sarah Suzuki, Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Photographer: Mike Brosilow

Of course through luck and coincidence the plot comes unraveled as the night watch with Michael Doherty as Dogberry, provides us with the major comic relief in the play as he ‘craftily’ misuses words and instills a certain feeling of absurdity to ‘officialdom’ in Messina. He is aided and abetted by his deputy Verges, played by Will Mobley, who ably provides the requisite slapstick necessary to be Dogberry’s chief deputy. These scenes are a sight to behold and their interactions just work perfectly. You really need to see them! Party On Garth!

Jonathan Gillard Daly, Kenneth Hamilton, Mark Corkins center stage, and Nate Burger in the back, Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Photographer: Mike Brosilow

But my favorite under story here is the battle of wits and wit’s end between Beatrice, Drew Mitchell, and Benedick, Nate Burger! Beatrice is Leonato’s niece and the cousin of Hero. She is the daughter of Antonio, marvelously played by Michael Doherty when he’s not entertaining us as Dogberry. It’s amazing to me how he keeps these disparate characters separate. Benedick is a noble and respected member of Don Pedro’s military unit.

Kenneth Hamilton, Mark Corkins, Nate Burger, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Photographer: Mike Brosilow

They both belittle the opposite sex and want nothing to do with love and marriage. So we are fully prepared, when of course they inevitably fall in love with one another…but with more than just a little help…a little bit of hi-jinks and meddling from their friends and compatriots. Nate Burger is a real presence at the American Players Theatre and makes his Milwaukee Rep debut in Much Ado. It’s about time and he’s just marvelous as Benedick…particularly fun is watching him wriggle and squirm behind the ‘shrubbery’ in order to hear all that is being said about Beatrice and her love of Benedick! You will find that highly amusing. And what an incredible voice: Alex Keiper’s Beatrice is just a joy to hear!

But let’s not forget the grunge! Music Director Dan Kazemi put on his composer’s hat and provides six original songs in the grunge style. Sometimes using Shakespearean text and in a number of instances text from other 16th Century poets. But you wouldn’t notice given the arrangements in high grunge dudgeon and blazing drums and searing Stratocasters! The songs fit the story and moods here to a T.

the cast of Much Ado About Nothing, Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Photographer: Mike Brosilow

So despite my original trepidation, Dan Kazemi and Director Laura Braza have brought us an engaging and delightful new take on a classic bit of Shakespearean comedy. I am sore amazed.

P.S. Never fear, you will get 1990s grunge music during intermission including Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box and Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and others.

side note #1: Like a number of other recent Shakespeare presentations in the area, Director Braza went without period English accents. Of course the period of the 1990s and the scene as the Pacific Northwest would suggest that decision…but hearing the play spoken in contemporary language makes it all that more accessible.

side note #2: this has nothing to do with the presentation but everything to do with time and place. There is a significant difference in mores and social attitudes between the Elizabethan Era and the 21st Century. So sometimes, the attitudes of the characters as written don’t make much sense to modern audiences at times.

Extra Credit Readings: The PlayGuide and The Program!

PSA: Milwaukee Rep Theater’s New Year’s Flash Sale!!

Start 2023 out right and save up to 50% on four amazing productions filled with heartfelt storytelling, incredible voices and hilarious comedy. 

Kick off the New Year with The Heart Sellers, Seven Guitars, God of Carnage and The Greatest Love for Whitney and get the best seats at an amazing discounted ticket price – our special gift to you. Don’t wait – this special offer must end Monday, January 2!

And to get tickets and read more about these performances, click here: Lloyd Suh’s The Heart Sellers; or here August Wilson’s Seven Guitars; or here Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage; or here: The Greatest Love for Whitney (Whitney Houston)!

Hopefully, I will see you there!!

But wait, some extra credit reading!

The Heart Sellers: Funny and deeply moving, this World Premiere by Lloyd Suh (The Chinese Lady) gives voice to the Asian immigrant experience in the 1970s when the landmark Hart-Celler Act granted thousands of professional workers a new path to citizenship. But for new Americans Jane and Luna, life in the USA with their workaholic husbands has left them feeling isolated and invisible. One Thanksgiving – over sips of wine and a questionable frozen turkey – they reminisce and dream of spreading their wings together in the land of opportunity: disco dancing, learning to drive and even a visit to Disneyland. With grace and dignity, this powerful play asks: “Would you give up your heart to make a new home?”

Seven Guitars: What would you do for a chance to live out your dream? In 1940s Pittsburgh, struggling singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton’s shot at stardom comes when a major recording studio offers an unexpected opportunity of a lifetime. Armed with newfound hope and a second chance, Floyd and his friends discover that dreams are heartbreakingly fragile when confronted by a world set against them. This riveting play, Milwaukee Rep’s eighth production in August Wilson’s iconic 10-play American Century Cycle, explores faith, artistry, humor, oppression and love set to the fiery rhythms and intense lyricism of American blues music.

God of Carnage: Winner of the Tony Award for Best Play, this explosive comedy is all fun and games – until the grown-ups get hurt. When two sets of parents politely meet over coffee and cake to settle a schoolyard spat between their sons, the gloves come off as neighborly decorum disintegrates into laugh-out-loud, no-holds barred mayhem. This “first class” (The New York Times) and “scabrously funny” (USA Today) send-up of middle-class manners gives a brutally entertaining look at what happens when the little things end up pushing us over the edge.

The Greatest Love For Whitney: Created by Milwaukee Rep’s Mark Clements: From her powerful anthems to her glamorous elegance on the silver screen, Whitney Houston’s breathtaking voice helped her become one of the most beloved artists of all time. The Greatest Love for Whitney celebrates the amazing career and legacy of this Grammy Award-winning icon by taking audiences through a journey of her record-setting hits, performed live and in-concert. Featuring songs like “I Will Always Love You,” “Saving All My Love For You” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” this superstar’s warmth and magnetism takes center stage in a fitting tribute to the woman known simply as “The Voice.”

PSA: Milwaukee Repertory Theater Launches Their “Powering Milwaukee Campaign”, To Bring Milwaukee State Of The Art Theater Spaces.

There have been a number of ‘soft’ announcements about the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s plans to remodel and improve their downtown theater complex. But today, they sent out the official announcement to get their Powering Milwaukee Campaign off the ground. From their email announcement:

Today We Launch A Campaign For Our Future!

Nearly 70 years ago, Mary John Sullivan and Fredrick C. Miller joined forces to ensure that Milwaukee would be one of the first cities in the country to have a professional theater based in its community. Knowing that a world-class city needed both professional sports and theater, shortly after bringing Major League Baseball to our city, Miller Brewing CEO Miller would team up with Milwaukee Rep founder Sullivan to create our first home on Oakland Avenue – the Fred Miller Theater.

Over the decades, we would grow into one of the largest theaters in the country and the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, serving 300,000 people including 20,000 students annually with 700 performances coupled with award-winning educational programming. However, we are facing a critical challenge. While it has served us well for four decades, our aging and inefficient Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex severely limits the productions we stage, the plays we develop, and the kind of educational impact we have — and will soon jeopardize our mission.

Therefore, we have embarked on the Powering Milwaukee Campaign which will define the standard of theater in Wisconsin for generations to come. The Campaign will fund the creation of the new Associated Bank Theater Center, including three state-of-the-art performance spaces, a large unified lobby providing ample opportunities for community events, an expanded offsite production center employing hundreds of local artisans, and venues with modern audience amenities.

One of the more exciting new features will be a robust arts education center housed within the new complex to expand our highly impactful student programs. Milwaukee Rep is one of the largest providers of arts education programs in the Midwest focusing on literacy, critical thinking and social-emotional learning. Our award-winning programs improve both hard and soft skills necessary for future employment and post-secondary education. The new complex will allow us to meet the growing needs of our community and schools on our waiting list. 

In addition to education impacts, the Associated Bank Theater Complex will:

  • Strengthen Milwaukee’s brand as a hub of creativity and innovation by allowing us to tour popular productions around the world and to Broadway.
  • Attract talent and new audiences by building on our growth and creating exceptional, highly in-demand work on par with the best theaters globally.
  • Be Milwaukee’s most inclusive and accessible cultural destination allowing us to best serve persons with social, cognitive and/or physical disabilities.
  • Drive increased economic activity attracting tourists, young professionals, and new residents expanding our current $30 million annual economic impact on Downtown Milwaukee.

In the last twelve months, we have been busy and we’re pleased to share the following progress:

  • EUA and Hunzinger Construction have completed conceptual designs, a phased construction plan and renderings for the Associated Bank Theater Complex.
  • We raised nearly 60% of the $75 million campaign goal including 100% participation from our Board of Trustees due in large part to the generosity of our Founders Circle.
  • An all-star team of nearly 100 trustees and community leaders is leading the effort to create our new home, including campaign co-chairs Tammy Belton-Davis, Bill & Sandy Haack, Jeff & Sarah Joerres, and Craig & Mara Swan.

It’s been nearly 40 years since we have called upon our community to give generously to ensure that Milwaukee continues to have theater that produces exceptional art, inspires people, cultivates community and ignites education. Now, we need to make that ask.

We invite you to learn more about our Powering Milwaukee Campaign and how you can participate here.

Together, we can power Milwaukee — our theater, our community, our future!

Judy Hansen, President, Board of Trustees

Chad Bauman. Executive Director

Mark Clements, Artistic Director