Theatre Intime Presents a Polished “Much Ado About Nothing”; First World War Becomes the Setting for Shakespeare’s Comedy
“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”: Theatre Intime has staged a reimagined “Much Ado About Nothing,” presented November 12-21 at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Directed by Katie Bushman, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is transplanted to the era of World War I. Benedick (Solomon Bergquist, center left) and Beatrice (Cassy James, center right) have a bickersome courtship, which is jeopardized by an action taken by Claudio (Harit Raghunathan, left) at his wedding to Hero (Lauren Owens, second from left). Onlookers: Leonato (Hank Ingham, second from right) and Don Pedro (Alex Conboy, right). (Photo by Elliot Lee)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
In Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare has Balthasar, a musician, sing: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more; men were deceivers ever.” This world-weary comment, about the timelessness of dishonesty in relationships, would seem to offer directors latitude to reimagine the period in which this comedy is set.
Princeton University’s Theatre Intime has presented (from November 12-21) a production that takes advantage of this dramaturgical license. Director Katie Bushman transplants the play — first published in 1600 — to the end of the First World War.
This is clear as soon as the audience enters the theater. We hear popular songs of that period, including Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and, more thematically relevant, George M. Cohan’s “Over There.”
Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (portrayed by Alex Conboy) returns home from winning a battle. With him are two of his soldiers: Claudio (Harit Raghunathan) and Benedick (Solomon Bergquist). The play is set at the home of a noble, Leonato (Hank Ingham); he invites the soldiers to stay for a month.
Leonato remarks that there is a “skirmish of wit” between his niece Beatrice (Cassy James) and Benedick. This is palpable as soon as the two characters are reunited onstage.
Bergquist brings charismatic stage presence to Benedick. He effortlessly glides around the stage, often leaping on top of the bench (or occasionally hiding under it) as he confidently delivers the character’s suave, urbane dialogue. This is matched by James’ breezy but layered performance as the blithely acerbic Beatrice.
Leonato’s description of that “merry war” establishes a central theme. On stage is a gazebo that is covered by a white drape, which makes it resemble a tent on a battlefield. The red flowers fastened to it could be drops of blood. Next to the gazebo is a bench, behind which more than one character hides to eavesdrop, as if on a reconnaissance mission.
Claudio is in love with Leonato’s vivacious daughter Hero (Lauren Owens), and after complicated machinations (in which Don Pedro courts her on Claudio’s behalf, during a masquerade ball) a wedding is planned. Don Pedro also contrives for Benedick and Beatrice to discover their true feelings for each other.
The wedding of Claudio and Hero is sabotaged by Don John, who is Don Pedro’s (illegitimate) brother. Through shrewd use of mistaken identity, Don John convinces Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero is unfaithful. At the altar Claudio publicly denounces Hero.
Lana Gaige is pithy as the malevolent Don John. Violent banging of fists is used to punctuate seething delivery of lines.
A development of the play’s war motif occurs in the form of Claudio’s treatment of Hero, and her reaction to it (Owens makes the character’s devastation unmistakable). Hero faints, and several characters — especially an infuriated, protective Beatrice — rush to her prone body out of concern. At that moment she is a casualty of war, lying on the battlefield. Later the wedding’s officiant, Friar Francis (Teddy Feig), suggests that Hero’s family fake her death, to make Claudio feel remorse for his treatment of her.
The director finds this aspect of the play — Claudio’s behavior toward Hero, for which he eventually is forgiven — to be problematic. “Why would a sympathetic character publicly slander his bride at the altar?” Bushman wonders rhetorically in a program note. “Why is he so easily duped by Don John in the first place? How can he be redeemed at the end?”
Suggesting PTSD as a possible explanation, Bushman writes: “These questions came to mind while I was doing research on shell shock in the First World War for my senior thesis. When reading about the soldiers who returned home paranoid, haunted, and suicidal after witnessing the horrors of trench warfare, I realized a possible reason for Claudio’s betrayal.” While Bushman enjoys the “lighthearted comic scenes,” she observes “a lot of tragedy present in this comedy.”
Raghunathan’s performance supports this. Although Claudio is depicted as jovial in his early scenes, Raghunathan uses body language that suggests inner conflict. In contrast to Bergquist’s exuberant portrayal of Benedick, Raghunathan as Claudio keeps his hands reservedly behind his back, as though not entirely ready to reconnect with his pre-war world. His demeanor is edgy, always alert.
In his delivery of Claudio’s anguished monologues — first when he suspects Hero is unfaithful, and later when he expresses deep remorse for cruelly misjudging her — Raghunathan places his hands over his heart. The corresponding vocal deliveries indicate short bursts of pain from a soldier who has learned to mask his emotions but cannot do so any longer.
An additional explanation is subtly posited for Claudio’s willingness to suspect that Hero is capable of being unfaithful to him. Hearing “Over There” before the show makes it interesting to observe Claudio’s reaction to hearing Balthasar (Grace Rosenberg) sing “Sigh No More.”
As Balthasar sings about the timelessness of infidelity, Claudio moves his body in rhythm, eventually singing along — clearly internalizing the song’s words. If Leonato’s home is a battlefield on which a war of romantic relationships is fought, then “Sigh No More” can be as much of a wartime propaganda song as “Over There.” Although Balthasar sings, “men were deceivers ever,” Raghunathan’s body language suggests that Claudio is interpreting the song to mean that both partners are capable of being dishonest — feeding his predisposition toward suspicion.
Constable Dogberry (Ellie Makar-Limanov) commands the local Watch, staffed by Verges (Katie Hameetman) and the three Watchmen (Rilla McKeegan, Alison Silldorff, and Grace Rosenberg), all of whom move with an enthusiastic, almost child-like spring in their step. The Watch overhears Don John’s accomplices Borachio (infused with smugness by Katie Irelin) and Conrade (Avi Chesler) discussing his scheme, and extract a confession from them.
The members of the Watch inform Leonato that Hero is innocent. Claudio (appropriately) is remorseful to discover how unjustly he treated her. He agrees to an odd condition that is placed on Leonato’s forgiveness: he must marry the daughter of Leonato’s brother Antonio, whom Leonato describes as “almost the copy of my child that’s dead.”
Claudio is overjoyed when it is revealed that this “copy” is Hero herself. Despite the adversarial banter that has largely characterized their relationship, Beatrice and Benedick also affirm their love for one another. For now, a truce seems to have been declared in the “merry war.”
Don John has been captured by the watchmen, but Benedick suggests that his punishment be decided later; he instructs the musicians, “Strike up, pipers.” There is celebratory dancing, with smooth choreography by Bergquist, letting the play end with a glossy tableau.
The cast is ably rounded out by Alexis Maze (Ursula), Campbell Schouten (Margaret), Kenza Benazzouz (Antonia), and graphic designer Teddy Leane (Messenger and Sexton). Alison Silldorff’s elegant costumes evoke the 1910s while blending with Kat McLaughlin’s set design. During the masquerade scene Beatrice wears a green dress, and Hero a pink one — color-coordinating them with the flowers in Leonato’s garden.
Bushman’s thoughtful, layered approach to the material steers the (student-formed) cast and creative team toward decisions that result in a strong unity between the script’s themes and the production. The actors’ performances exude a high level of comfort with the material, and confidence in their interpretations of it. Much Ado About Nothing stands out as one of Theatre Intime’s best productions.
For information about Theatre Intime’s upcoming productions call (609) 258-5155 or visit theatreintime.org.