Somewhere at the heart of the madcap new song and dance revue currently running at the University of South Carolina’s Longstreet Theatre is a cute little story about two romantic couples and how gossip brings one pair together while threatening to tear the other apart. Director Dustin Whitehead has modernized the costumes, setting and characterizations with plenty of contemporary music, non-traditional casting, inventive movement and broad physical comedy, but ultimately, the author admits up front in his title that his story is Much Ado About Nothing.
William Shakespeare’s late-16th century comedy of flirtation and deceit is mainly banter and pretty speeches, and at a recent preview performance, the actors — primarily undergraduates — sank their teeth into the juicy language and vocabulary whenever possible, seeming to relish the chance to express their characters’ thoughts and inner motivations with such eloquent and expressive dialogue.
The problem, however, is that one always has to edit down Shakespeare’s text to get a manageable run time (here, about two and a half hours including intermission). And in this reimagined version, even more of the script is cut in order to make room for admittedly entertaining new material. While this tactic afforded the opportunity for gifted young performers to showcase comedic, vocal and musical skills, I fear that the details of one of the play’s two concurrent storylines got lost in the shuffle, making its resolution murky if not altogether incomprehensible.
Plot A is the one for which this work is best known: strong-willed, independent Beatrice (Jordan Postal) has little time or patience for the insincere overtures of suitors who are looking to get lucky, while dapper, carefree wit Benedick (Anthony Curry) eschews potential entanglements with women looking for a husband and provider. Both actors captured with ease and clarity the adversarial relationship of the couple who hate each other so much, they’re bound to end up together. Postal, in particular, created a believable, three-dimensional character whose assertiveness and cleverness might have seemed intimidating in 1599 but would be the norm among educated young women of today.
Plot B stems from the impending wedding of Hero (Ezri Fender) and Claudio (Cameron Giordano), and the efforts of envious troublemaker Don John (Beck Chandler) to disrupt the proceedings via sex, lies and innuendo. Chandler used body language and an aloof, disengaged delivery to suggest his outsider status as a bastard, a fact which impelled his machinations and attempts to subvert the greater good. Fender and Giordano were adorable as young adults in the throes of puppy love, then heartbreaking when their best-laid plans went awry.
I am able to describe that secondary plotline, however, with the advantage of having seen Much Ado multiple times in the past — from famous film versions directed by Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon, to a raucous, alcohol-fueled incarnation performed in the round in the back room of a tavern in Atlanta, to a flamenco-tinged production set in 1920s Havana and staged at USC’s Drayton Hall long before any of this current cast were born. And while musical interludes with cast members on piano — including a soulful, lounge-style rendition of Shakesepeare’s “Cry No More” by Chandler, and a plaintive performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Cassidy Spencer as the otherwise buffoonish Dogberry — and a climactic, exuberant celebratory dance scene orchestrated by choreographer André Megerdichian were utterly delightful, the details of the disrupt-the-wedding plot may have gotten lost for many along the way.
Spencer and Lilly Heidari (as Dogberry’s sidekick Verges) demonstrated the same comedic chemistry and rapport as they did in Montgomery at Trustus Theatre in August. Although most of the characters’ funniest lines and scenes from the original text were severely pared down, Whitehead instead gave the pair extended vignettes filled with hilarious pantomime and clowning. Their antics were more Laurel and Hardy than Shakespeare, but they milked every drop of laughter possible from a palpably appreciative and supportive audience.
Scenic designer Nate Terracio demonstrated his customary artfulness at creating the suggestion of elegance out of next to nothing. One section of seats in Longstreet’s customary in-the-round configuration was removed and replaced with a steep bank of faux-marble steps, signifying a grand staircase in an opulent mansion or castle. Other stairs led through the audience onto platforms where smaller scenes played out, including one surface that was simultaneously the top of a grand piano.
Much Ado, as reinterpreted by Whitehead, was quite a spectacle, and as I’ve noted in previous years, the depth of talent within the undergraduate drama program at USC continues to impress. I don’t know if Shakespeare needed this much help to make his work more accessible, but this creative reinvention is definitely not boring.
What: Much Ado About Nothing
Where: Longstreet Theatre, 1300 Green St.
When: Through Nov. 9
Price: $22 ($20 USC faculty/staff, military, seniors 60-plus; $15 students)