by Chloe Loos
A classic comedy about mistaken identity and courtly courtship, Much Ado About Nothing at the Rogue Theatre delivers exactly what Tucson has come to expect from its ensemble of well-seasoned actors: clear language and beautiful acting.
The opening was clever, featuring Beatrice (Holly Griffith) and her spitfire delivery of some grade-A Elizabethan insults to her Benedick (Ryan Parker Knox), who serves them right back. The exchange really shows the audience why the duo tends to take center stage despite the main plot turning on the budding love between gentle Hero, played by a darling Bryn Booth, and Claudio, played by a striking Hunter Hnat. I was blown away by the attention given to each minute detail in the facial expressions and slight movements by each member of the cast, from Hero’s waiting ladies (Claire de la Vergne, Sarah Shannon) to the rest of the men who populate Messina. There was also an enjoyable abundance of strong physical comedy from Dogberry, played by the comical Matt Walley, and the Watch (Cole Potwardowski, Sarah Shannon, and Chris Pankratz).
While I enjoyed myself throughout most of the piece, parts of the villainous subplot surrounding Don John (Christopher Johnson), Borachio (Steve McKee), and Conrade (Dave Hentz) fell a little flat due to the liveliness of the main action. While Don John is a brooding character, the implicit pacing in these portions tended to lull me out of the rapid-fire dialogue that flowed around the home of Leonato (Harold Dixon).
I also want to give kudos to the minimal set designed by Joseph McGrath and executed by scenic artist Amy Novelli. The set perfectly echoed a classic Shakespeare piece and was unobtrusively modified throughout scene changes. The costumes were as beautiful as expected and added characterization via details such as color palette and fabric material that built the world of the play. A final element that really tied the piece together was the beautiful use of music provided by Russell Ronnebaum on piano, Samantha Bounkeua on violin, and John Keeney (as Balthasar) on guitar. Although I do feel that the idea of underscoring dramatic action could have been utilized a little more, the sounds that drifted to my ears from the balcony really got me into the mood of the piece before and during the performance.
Now, to review a Shakespeare play is an intimidating task as one needs to consider both the historic meaning of the text and explore why we are still doing his work 500+ years after the fact. Shakespeare is often done due to his “universal” themes, but I believe that there are so many specific place and time-bound constraints of understanding that we really need to examine the specific context in which current versions of his work are being done.
The central conflict of the play revolves around the question of Hero’s worthiness (read: virginity). She is set up to appear a harlot by Don John’s machinations (which, as a bastard, is an extension of his own shame and misogyny), and the play leads us to a point where she is publicly shamed – and forcefully pushed away – by Claudio. Leonato laments that he would rather see her dead than unvirtuous. We can, of course, write this off as a relic of the time, but I think it is important we witness the lines of belief and trust that come through the play, especially in today’s “Me Too” milieu. The play continues and everything ends up just peachy (as this is still a comedy) but there are no repercussions for the horrible actions of the “good guys”. Hero’s silence is also something to be aware of as in this piece she does not speak for 35 minutes (when her identity has shifted into being engaged) and does not speak more than a verse until 55 minutes into the play. The text itself seems to recognize this, however, as we see how the close friendship among men (a “bro-code”) leads to the blameless Hero’s death.
More overt and surprisingly progressive attitudes towards gender include Beatrice’s commanding actions and fierce thoughts (her “O, that I were a man” speech was incredible) and Benedick’s transformation into a love-struck puppy upon finding out that she could love him, for instance. The first scene between two named men – Benedick and Claudio – showcases a reverse on the Bechdel test in which the two discuss the ladies of the house.
Finally, I do want to notate that there was only one person of color in the show and, in my showing, less than five people of color in the audience which denotes to me that Shakespeare is still affiliated with white audiences. I recognize that the Rogue has built its relationships with actors through the ensemble, but I wonder if the lack of people of color in the ensemble is indicative of a larger problem within the theatre community.
There is still a place for Shakespeare in modern times, and sometimes it can be surprising what these texts of yesterday can tell us today. So, without much ado, get thee to the Rogue! Tickets can be purchased online at theroguetheatre.org or by calling 520-551-2053. Showtimes are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm until January 27th.