There’s something wonderful about taking a 400-year-old comedy and its many outdated puns and create a show that young actors clearly enjoy performing and that audiences should delight in experiencing.
Richard Roberts has done just that with William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” the latest production by Anderson University’s theater department. The director has given the play, which opens tonight, a retro makeover by shifting it to the 1970s and flooding the senses with vintage clothing, period music and pop art.
It is common these days to see the Bard’s characters travel through time, but what’s so enjoyable about this “Much Ado” is that all those vibrant stage elements create a visual energy that carries over into many strong performances.
The rumors and lies at the heart of “Much Ado” aren’t all meant to create disharmony. Having just returned from war, Claudio falls instantly in love with Hero. They plan a wedding that the jealous Don John hopes to blow apart by spreading a false rumor about Hero.
The lighter story line revolves around Benedick, a friend to Claudio, and Beatrice. The two are friendly rivals engaged in a “merry war” of insults.
Both have sworn off marriage, but everyone else thinks they’d make a perfect match so a few white lies get told to try and bring them together.
Roberts, resident dramaturg at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, last assisted Anderson University in 2005 when he directed “The Music Man.” His vision for “Much Ado” is a playful revamping of a classic that skillfully blends unique visuals with effectives staging, visual comedy and some surprising musical interludes.
In one scene, Roberts moves the action to a beach where Benedick must struggle to stay hidden while listening in on some gossip. In the following scene, which puts Beatrice in a similarly hilarious predicament, Hero and her girlfriends are clothes shopping and jabbering while Beatrice hides behind racks of dresses and under tables.
The hit songs played throughout the show add more variety and fun, but they sometimes seem rushed, too short and unnecessary. Overall, the music does compliment the clothing and works of art by Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein that decorate the stage.
An intensely animated performance of Benedick comes from Adam Tran, who while transitioning from cocky bachelor to love fool runs and rolls around the stage with sound authority.
As his female counterpart and eventual paramour, Lisa Ermel gives Beatrice a closed but caring personality. Ermel’s performance is also very strong, and she seems to approach Beatrice as having a slight advantage in her verbal jousting with Benedick. She may very well be right.
Other lead actors gave sound performances Monday during a very clean dress rehearsal. The main cast is very balanced in talent, something not so surprising coming from AU. But what is noteworthy about this particular production is the depth of skill seen in the cast going down to more minor roles.
Leah Brenner, a familiar face on the Byrum Hall stage, has a knack for delivering the comedic lines of constable Dogberry that cut through some of the play’s tenser scenes. And as Margaret, Charissa Huguegnard, demands attention, given to a somewhat dull but vitalsupporting role.
Roberts makes one major adaptation from most productions of “Much Ado” in that some major male roles are played by women. Along with Brenner’s Dogberry, a change that alters the play in no substantial way, Roberts takes Leonato, the role of Hero’s father as written by Shakespeare, and turns it into Leonata, Hero’s mother.
While the gender change requires some rewording of lines throughout the play, it also gives Brooke Lose, another strong senior in the school’s theater department, the opportunity to tackle the part and for Roberts to play around with staging, as when Lose’s Leonata is picking out decorations for her daughter’s wedding, something Leonato would have likely left to his wife anyway.
Overall, this “Much Ado” is a freshly altered reworking that allows a talented group of performers to shine.
If you go…
“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Roberts
Byrum Hall, Anderson University
Opens tonight and continues Friday and Saturday, and Nov. 20-22. All shows at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for military and seniors, $5 for students. For tickets, call the Byrum box office at (765) 641-4351.
—Barrett Newkirk is a reporter for the Herald Bulletin. Story republished with permission. Photos by Richard Sitler.
Anderson University is a private Christian university of 2,750 undergraduate and graduate students in central Indiana. Anderson continues to be recognized as a top Christian college: in 2008, U.S. News and World Report ranked Anderson University among the best colleges and universities in the Midwest for the fourth consecutive year. Established in 1917 by the Church of God, Anderson University offers more than 65 undergraduate majors and graduate programs in business, education, music, nursing and theology.