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!

First Stage’s Young Company Presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

The Young Company is First Stage’s troupe of advanced high school age actors. And in the performances that I have experienced and again here with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they are playing beyond expectations for such a youthful cast.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and accessible and a great play to work with…because even audiences not familiar with Shakespeare in general know something of the plot and characters…and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy this play.

The Young Company is presenting the play at their Goodman Mainstage Hall in the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on Walnut just a bit north of the Deer District.

The Company is presenting the play in the round with very minimal staging. A barely raised circular stage with a low platform along one arc to provide space for speeches, resting, sleeping, and fairies! And that minimal set and restrained space can be challenging for the action and large ensemble required for A Midsummer Night’s Dream but these young actors make the most of it! Director Molly Rhode, a First Stage alumna, deserves a lot of credit for orchestrating the comings and goings as the scenes change and of course the cast for their perfect execution as fairies make way for nobles and nobles make way for craftsmen, and town or palace make way for the forest. And the physical comedy inherent in the play are also clearly apparent and the audience reactions made clear that we were all having fun!

And costuming too isn’t rich or over the top…but you will be able to discern when a character is a fairy! Or a noble! Or a craftsman! And that is important since a number of the actors are playing multiple roles. So pay attention but you with just a little care, you’ll be able to follow the characters as they progress through the story and the dreams Shakespeare wrote into this comedy. And if you lose track for even a moment, the various bells, horns, drums, and other sound effects will clue you in as to which scene and which group of characters is about to fill the stage in front of you. Although I doubt anyone will mistake a fairy for a noble!

But the limited scenic space and simple costuming lets the language come through. And the cast has mastered the language and the story here is told via the language and the actor’s commitment to the language. Truly remarkable for such a young cast. I think we will see any number of these young actors on Milwaukee’s adult stages in a few years.

One of stand outs on Sunday, was Zachary Nowacek as Nick Bottom. Nowacek brings all the requisite humor and boastfulness required for the role…particularly as the roles for the play within the play are announced…and despite securing the lead role Pyramus, Nowacek exhibits a perfect swagger as he suggests that he can play all of the roles. And when we finally get to see the play presented for the duke’s nuptials, Nowacek presents the appropriate bit of slapstick as he brandishes his prop sword causing his onstage audience to duck on cue…and then plays the death scene to the hilt (pun intended)…to all of our amusement…including the good duke!

And then we have Angel Rivera as Helena and Alice Rivera as Hermia. Two BFFs whose affections toward one another turn as the misdirections and mishaps in the court and the forest cause their suitors to inexplicably change their affections. Both of these young actors start from the love struck young women and move to some very adult confrontations as the actual Midsummer Night’s Dreams affected their love interests. Both roles were played with the correct intensity and emotion and really brought the stories home. And of course their eventual shift to happily wed noblewomen was played with the appropriate calm and regal bearing!

And you can’t leave a discussion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream without discussing Robin Goodfellow! And on Sunday afternoon, Robin was played by Mara Holzen, who was subbing for Josie Van Slyke. And Holzen gave us the proper feeling of spunk, frivolity, and mischief that you would expect from a puck. A proper very Puck indeed!!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is suggested for families and young people, ages 11+. And I will suggest that this a perfect production and a perfect venue to introduce young people to the language and poetry of Shakespeare! All seating is close to the stage and provides an intimate relationship with actors and the story.

It runs one more weekend, with performances on December 16th, 17th, and 18th. Tickets can be ordered here! There is ample free parking in their lot next to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center and additional street parking.

Extra credit reading: The Playbill! and if you want to get a head start on the play or prepare those Shakespeare rookies: The Enrichment Guide

P.S. I will add photos later as they become available.