Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is originally set in Messina, with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and his fellow soldiers staying with Messina’s governor, Leonato, after their victory in local wars. In Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s new production (now through May 21), Don Pedro and his fellow soldiers still stay at Leonato’s home, but the scene has shifted from Messina to 1930s British-occupied India. Leonato becomes the British governor of Methala, and Don Pedro and his companions become British officers. Don Pedro is the Prince of Rawalpindi, and Don Pedro’s companion Benedick is from Jaipur instead of Padua. ASF seamlessly modifies Shakespeare’s lines to accommodate these new place names and, through set and production details, magically creates a convincing British-occupied India onstage.
The details in ASF’s new production are absolutely delightful. Peter Hicks’ set design features impressive Indian latticework and elephant relief designs, effectively conveying the grand home of a British occupier in colonized India. Dramaturg Bruce Mann notes that the British characters “live in a rigid, male-centered social world, mostly oblivious to the art, music, culture, and beauty of India even as they experience it every day.” The activities onstage reflect this obliviousness as the British women in Leonato’s house play squash, and the sunglass-sporting men play golf, drink cocktails, and lounge around in lawn chairs, idly half-listening to their Indian servants sing for them. The lackadaisical nature of the British makes the “much ado” in the play’s plot believable. The British characters are, as Mann points out in the program notes, self-centered. Beatrice and Benedick quickly believe (on the slightest suggestion from Don Pedro and his friends) the other’s affection. Claudio is easily convinced that his betrothed, Leonato’s daughter Hero, is unfaithful, and, in the brief tragic turn of Shakespeare’s comedy, he publicly shames her. By setting Much Ado in a world where people have little to do except sit around and drink, ASF convincingly conveys how the play moves from comedy to tragedy to comedy in the short space of two and a half hours.
The Indian elements of ASF’s production are brilliantly realized through the Bollywood dance numbers. Movement Specialist Paural Kapoor has created charming dance numbers for the ASF cast, particularly the rollicking dance that concludes the show. Not unlike the jigs that ended Shakespeare’s play during the early modern period, the closing Bollywood dance is a full cast affair, resplendent in color and joy. The night I saw the production, the audience leapt to its feet with resounding applause when the dance was over.
These production elements are so successful that it is particularly disappointing that much of the acting does not rise to the same quality level. The best acting is found in the minor characters. Nandita Shenoy, playing Hero’s attendant Ursula, is hilarious when she and Hero try to gull Beatrice into believing that Benedick is in love with her. ASF mainstay Rodney Clark is chuckle-worthy as Antonio, Leonato’s brother, who spends most of the production either drunk or golfing (or both).
The principle actors, unfortunately, are mostly disappointing. Peter Simon Hilton as Benedick is great at physical comedy—when Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio discuss Beatrice’s love for Benedick (for the benefit of the listening Benedick), Hilton hilariously shimmies his way around the stage to hear their conversation, finally ending up hidden at the feet of the audience in the front row. The physical comedy is enjoyable, but Hilton’s delivery of his lines is histrionic and overblown. Hilton mostly speaks with wide hand gestures, as if each line were a proclamation. Hilton’s over-the-top delivery impairs the romantic moments between Benedick and Beatrice (Jenny Mercein). While Mercein’s acting is less exaggerated than Hilton’s, her performance is mostly just superficial mirth. When she tries to be serious, urgently demanding Benedick kill Claudio for shaming Hero, the audience just laughs and thinks it another joke. Her performance lacks the subtlety that would make Beatrice’s request to Benedick believable, and Hilton’s unrestrained performance impairs his ability to connect with her emotionally. Erik Gullberg’s Claudio is similarly unbelievable; Gullberg’s every emotion (affection, anger, disbelief) is so earnest that he comes off as one-sided.
Thom Rivera’s Don Pedro is flat and unlikeable. Rivera’s performance makes it puzzling why Don Pedro has so many dedicated friends since he just seems dull; he presents his plan for tricking Beatrice and Benedick with only half-hearted enthusiasm. While Rivera’s performance is unimpressive at best, Phillip Christian as Don John is absolutely abysmal. Christian’s acting is awkward and affected, and he spends most of the production sullenly pouting, with his arms crossed across his chest. Christian is more like a petulant child than a revengeful villain, and Don Pedro and Claudio come across as stupid for listening to his accusations about Hero. The ASF had the potential to exploit the relationship between Don Pedro and his illegitimate brother since Don John is an Indian to Don Pedro’s British officer, but instead Christian acts cartoonish and ridiculous.
Even with these uneven performances, ASF’s Much Ado About Nothing is fun and worth seeing—if only for its setting.
ASF’s Much Ado About Nothing runs through May 21. For more information, please visit http://www.asf.net/ticket/production_detail.aspx?perf=7850.