and they all lived happily ever after… except simon rainville who was not
It is incredible to stop and consider that nearly the entire canon of work written by William Shakespeare over four hundred years ago explores themes that are still considered immediately relevant for contemporary audiences. It is also interesting that in many cases it is Shakespeare’s comedies that frequently mirror own our society the most ardently. This is especially apparent in Shakespeare By the Sea’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, which plays at the Cambridge Battery in Point Pleasant Park until August 30th, 2013.
The play focuses primarily on the courtship of two couples, the docile Claudio and Hero and the tempestuous Benedick and Beatrice and a series of machinations and trickery centering on mistaken identity and the use of disguises to wreak havoc on the wedding festivities. On the surface, as the title suggests, it seems like a fun tale of witty banter coyly drawing out lovers and ridiculous constables intercepting the wicked plans of a scheming (and likely envious) half brother to the Prince. Yet, under the surface Much Ado About Nothing examines the fragility of a maiden’s virtue and reputation and how easy it is for her life to be utterly ruined by the men who supposedly love and care about her over the most trivial of circumstances.
There are some terrific performances in this production. Rhys Bevan-John is hysterical as the blundering Constable Dogberry. I especially loved how he led Tom Gordon Smith’s Assistant Constable Verges around so emphatically by the hand. Drew O’Hara plays a naive Claudio, eager to follow the lead of Pedro and Benedick and is thus easily manipulated and deceived. Riley Raymer is sweet as Hero, the much maligned waif, but Raymer gives her gumption also as she beseeches her father to spare her life, speaking up bravely for herself through tears of terror, confusion and shock. Jeremy Hutton brings all the charm of a Kennedy brother to sparring Benedick and Kathryn McCormack is sassy, smart and alluring as Beatrice, his more than equal opponent. Beatrice is such a rare and glorious gem of a female protagonist for Elizabethan England and McCormack gives her great depth and strength of character, as well a strong dose of flirtatiousness. She has a particularly fierce moment after Hero’s disastrous wedding when she snarls at Benedick, referring to Claudio, “I would eat his heart in the marketplace,” and immediately we see how much she loves her cousin, how frustrated she is with the absurd gender politics of her day and how much she trusts Benedick to be so frank and free with even her darkest emotions. Marty Burt gives a harrowing performance as Hero’s father, Governor Leonato who is caught between the genuine love of his child and the disgust at the allusion of her lost innocence. The result is a beautiful, nuanced and heartbreaking portrayal by Burt that showcases how impossible it is to be both a father who cares deeply about his daughter and to uphold the barbaric Elizabethan views on transgressions by women of purity, innocence and virtue.
Director Elizabeth Murphy changes the play’s Italian place names to Canadian ones and gives one of Simon Rainville’s characters a hilarious (and quite accurate!) Cape Breton accent, setting the play in Nova Scotia in an unclear historical time period. At a time when issues of how young girls are perceived in relation to their activities with boys is much too prevalent, how young girls’ voices can still be deafened under those of men and how girls can still have their lives ruined, or feel utterly ruined, with death still a very real and immediate risk, I wondered why Murphy squandered the opportunity to root the play clearly right here in our own time. The comic arc of the play is also a little bit bumpy. There are times early in the play when Hutton’s Benedick seems like a cartoon in a real world too small for him, while Simon Rainville’s carefully subdued villain, Don John, seems out of place as the play progresses into a more farcical, melodramatic free for all. I would have liked the opportunity to see Rainville, who often plays the company’s most endearing characters, have the opportunity to really sink his teeth into a maniacal, deliciously wicked evil genius.
In all, however, Much Ado About Nothing, manages to be simultaneously a very funny and saucy evening at the theatre, and also an intelligent exploration of gender politics, expectations and consequences that hit ardently close to home. Indeed, this production reminds us that beneath its comedic veneer Shakespeare, as always, is tackling something big.
Much Ado About Nothing plays in repertory with Hamlet and Snow White until September 1st, 2013 at the Cambridge Battery in Point Pleasant Park. Tickets are PWYC (with a suggested donation price of $20.00 per person) and seating is first come, first serve beginning 30 minutes before the performance. Chairs can be rented for $2.00 and there is blanket space available for you to bring your own seat. New this year, the best seats in the house can now be reserved for $25.00 as part of the Sweet Seats Program. For more information please visit this website.