Playing “Telephone” with Shakespeare

by Nathan Hall

Losing things in translation can be very funny sometimes. The transference of dialects often devolves the original author’s meaning into one big game of “telephone,” as anyone who has compared the Dead Sea Scrolls to Gideon’s New Testament can attest. Take the title “Much Ado About Nothing,” for example. In Elizabethan dialect, it translates to, “Much Ado About Noting.” Take note of the University’s delightful new take on the Shakespeare classic, as further inspection of this comedy reveals a profound awareness of shame, court politics and honor mixed in with the pratfalls.

Chase Korte stars as Claudio, a returning soldier with the requisite heart of gold. Megan Gerlach co-stars as Hero, a much-beloved and moneyed virginal maiden. Claudio and Hero are anxious to be married, but Leonato, Hero’s benefactor, bans any hanky-panky the week before the upcoming wedding. In order to pass the time more comfortably, the lovers conspire with their pal Prince Don Pedro, played by Scott Reynolds, to play matchmaker with their marriage-hating friends. Before you can say “wacky hijinks,” confirmed bachelor Benedick and man-hating Beatrice are positively smitten. Meanwhile, Pedro’s jealous, illegitimate brother Don John, played by Brian Wene, conspires to break up the wedding by slandering Hero’s reputation.

The setting shifts here from Elizabethan-era Italy to a gated community somewhere in affluent America. Rather than embroidering, ladies in waiting flip through glossy fashion magazines. The set, festooned with clippings from the pages of old issues of Glamour, appears much like a pastel-tinted jungle gym. It is an ideal playground for the petty, image-obsessed characters to prance. Bursting bodices and flimsy doublets of yore are abandoned in favor of the latest Pierre Cardin and Gap fashions. Stuffy costume balls are transformed as carefully choreographed raves and “Grease” – inspired doo-wop musical numbers.

“The fashion is the fashion,” says one of Don John’s cronies. Indeed, fashion here dictates appearances, constructs identities, and manufactures reality. Observation rather than truth confirms social order, and these lies lead to potentially devastating outcomes. The opinion of others is gospel for these adolescents, utterly terrified of growing up.

The sexes have been separated for nearly a decade, as the boys became men while fighting on the front while the lonely females matured back home. The radical change in the court’s community dynamics begins to cause more problems than a hermit in a button factory. Both gender camps are eager to experience love in all its glory, but simultaneously fear losing their friends in the process. In order to save face, the group splinters into a war of words.

The dishonored Hero fakes her own death in order to save face, simply because of an unproven charge of having pre-marital sex with someone other than her finance. In order to win the hand of his new crush Beatrice, Benedick vows to kill his best friend Claudio as retribution for joining in Hero’s public humiliation. Once the accusation is revealed as unfounded, the grief-stricken Claudio agrees to marry Leonato’s niece sight-unseen as a means to avoid a deadly blood feud. This type of extreme rationale may seem ludicrous by today’s more forgiving value systems, but it is nevertheless extremely important to remember what a big deal this used to be.

For the most part, the University’s channeling of the Bard does not disappoint us here with the plot devices we have come to expect: ribald sexual innuendo, double weddings, sight gags, and happy conclusions. Regardless, this new thought-provoking update is a testament to the fact that Shakespeare’s text is as malleable as it is timeless.

Much Ado about Nothing plays through Friday and Jan. 24-Feb. 2
at Rarig Center, (612) 624-2345.