Much Ado About Nothing

A  tradition for Shakespeare has propelled the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh Stages for decades. Commitment to the classics inspired the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and Shakespeare now plays on via Pitt Stages, the department’s production program.

Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s wittiest and thoughtful romantic comedies, was last staged by Pitt Theatre Arts when the Charity Randall Theatre opened following long-awaited renovations in 2003. Forty years ago, Kathleen George’s memorable production took the Pitt stage and is celebrated in the lobby. In between, TRSF produced the play in 1983 in the fourth of its 16 seasons.

The play’s timeless themes of love, loyalty, and friendship explore some important realities including how false accusations can be destructive. Love is at the heart of the story, but the dark edges of war and power struggles lurk.

When Leonato, governor of the port town of Messina, welcomes soldiers back from the war, Prince Don Pedro brings along friends Benedick and Claudio as well as his black sheep brother Don John. Leonato’s daughter and Claudio are even more smitten with one another. His niece Beatrice has a prior connection with Benedick, so sparks and words fly as their “merry war” resumes. They badmouth both love and marriage even as their mutual attraction grows.

Victoria Rhoades, guest director from the renowned Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts, stages this lovely production. She previously directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Pitt. She’s found an overlooked character that is listed in some editions of Shakespeare’s play. Innogen is listed as “Leonato’s silent wife.” When one considers the number of plays in which adult children seem to have only a father and no mother present, Shakespeare at least provides a spouse for his patriarch here. Rhoades devises a text-supported way for Hero’s mother–in disguise as a friar–to have a voice. It’s a moving and informed choice, effectively representing Hero’s mother is otherwise not recognized. I hope it is one employed in others’ productions. In my study of families in Shakespeare’s plays, I have felt the more frequent inclusion of fathers and while mothers are absent mothers could be an attempt by the London-based playwright’s to make up for his long absences from his wife and children.

The cast of 22 is an impressive collection of Pitt students from varied programs and experiences. At Pitt, which isn’t a conservatory program, theatre is a labor of love, often showcasing impressive talent from throughout many academic departments. Pitt Stages is often a refreshing experience. The acting is often more naturalistic than technical, and the players bring with them a lot of heart.

Here, Rhoades successfully set her company on the mission to bring realism and passion to their production. From the Duke’s lovely multi-leveled and dimensional villa, designed by Gianni Downs through the music by Bill Barclay and Rhoades own choreography, the physical and aural experience of the play is full. Rhoades employs the whole space, using aisles for entrances (such as the arrival of the returning troops) and the areas in from the stage (for Benedick and Claudio’s chats with the audience) to intimate advantages. At one point Beatrice eavesdrops from the house, lurking behind audience members. Several other fun bits have actors interacting with audience members. It brings the words and the people of this play closer to us in the tradition of the play’s earliest productions in The Globe and its great fun.

Lighting by Steven Yates illuminates actors wherever they travel, making the experience even more participatory for the audience when the cast joins then in the house. Costumes by Dorothy Sherman and the support of Cindy Albert’s shop are gently militaristic for the handsome soldiers and soft with some fun variations for the women. An apt choice was Beatrice’s Hepburnesque long culotte skirt supported her feminist attitude and deft movement. And details like constable Dogberry’s misbuttoned vest were spot on.

The whole cast deserves applause for stepping out with Shakespeare and for diving in under Rhoades lovely directing that takes them purposefully throughout entire set and theatre.

As Benedick, Brenden Peifer shows a broad range from incredulous at the idea of being in love to his gentle concern for Beatrice. Sarah Kwiatek is an intense yet comic Beatrice who urgently implores the men to heed women’s true nature. Her energy conjures a young Katherine Hepburn as she steers the core action of the play. The pair’s scenes are funny, heartfelt and lovely touchstones amid the other comic and deceptive action.

Kyle Corbin’s Don John drives the double-crossing intended to thwart Claudio and Hero’s marriage. He’s self-absorbed (probably depressed) and weasely. In a final moment when he’s invited by all the others to join the curtain call, we remember it’s only a play.

As Don Pedro, Jahir Christian cuts a strong presence as a leader. His attempted wooing of Beatrice is very sweet. Adam Nie as Claudio is a thoughtful suitor while his Hero, played by Emily Peifer is a gentle and innocent fiancee.

Joe McHugh is a standout as Borachio, a meddling side man who set up the deception of Claudio who will accuse virginal Hero of infidelity. McHugh is graceful and natural with both the language and comedy. His bits with multiple bottles of liquor draw laughter but are well within his tippling character.

Rhoades adaptation allows time to relish a soundtrack for a mood-setting prologue, some beautiful dances, and underscoring throughout the play. While there are a few times the acoustical balance is a bit off, the overall effect is lovely–more cinematic and engaging. Rhoades also designed the sound and moments such as seaside sounds also define the coastal setting. Some live music features guitar by cast members and the central song “Sigh No More” as a sweet solo.

Perhaps Rhoades says it best in her own “advice to the players” in her pre-auditions note: “Shakespeare is renowned for his ability to capture the nuances of human relationship and the struggles and delights of what it means to be alive.”

Once more, Much Ado salutes Pitt’s commitment to Shakespeare and to bring his works to students as part of a whole educational and practical experience. Audiences get to take part in one of the most intimate and historic venues in Pittsburgh. It’s an adventurous marriage worth noting.

Much Ado About Nothing runs at the Charity Randall Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial with performances through November 18 on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. Show details and tickets on the Pitt Stages website.

Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh  LinkedIn

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