The “nothing” in Much Ado About Nothing has multiple meanings. In Shakespeare’s time, as in our own, it could be used to refer to something inconsequential, not worth “noting.” This play asks us: What do we notice in our lives? How does this affect our ability to love and be loved?
Bag&Baggage’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing presents a lot to take note of: gender-fluid casting, glitzy and glamorous sets, funny props. But in all of its visual splendor, this adaptation seems to overlook what’s most important: the storytelling.
Much Ado is one of Shakespeare’s great comedies. It follows two pairs of lovers. On one hand, we have Claudio and Hero, the young sweethearts set to get married. Claudio’s insecurities make him easy prey for the machinations of Don John, who sets a trap to make Claudio think Hero is “dishonest” (a.k.a. not a virgin). Then we have Benedick and Beatrice (though in this adaptation Beatrice has been converted to a male Bertram), an older pair of guarded cynics. They don’t want to admit they love each other because that’d require vulnerability. This mix of guardedness and longing makes them easy prey for a trap set by their friends to make them do just that: be vulnerable and accept love. The play is full of funny traps and misunderstandings, and in the end, both couples see through the fog to the truth of their requited love.
Bag&Baggage’s adaptation, adapted by Gordon Barr in 2013 for his Scottish company Bard in the Botanics, dazzles us with its vibrancy and charms us with its silliness. The sets are flamboyant and the costumes are extravagant. The sound design is sexy and the whole thing feels like one big Pride event. The Pride theme is locally relevant, given that Hillsboro just had its first-ever Pride event this summer. Plus, the general flirtatiousness of the play lends itself to a sensual interpretation. The production design on this adaptation feels timely, cohesive and evocative. But the production, as a whole, doesn’t seem to trust the text.
Some cast members, for example, yell their lines as if louder meant clearer. Director Cassie Greer also tends to draw our attention away from the text. Often an actor will be saying something important, and a bit of choreography or slapstick comedy will divert us from what is being said. At one moment, long beautiful garlands of flowers slowly fall from the branches overhanging the set. This is visually stunning. But the result is an entire audience looking upwards for a long time, distracted by a spectacle overshadowing the language.
The other thing that gets in the way of the text is the gender-fluid casting. Shakespeare’s comedies often lend themselves to gender-fluid interpretations, because he loves to play with cross-dressing and the performance of gender. In this production, the originally female Beatrice has become Bertram. Other characters are gender-bent but retain their original masculine names. Claudio is still Claudio, rather than Claudia, even though the character is played by a woman.
The inconsistent changing of names and pronouns is a bold choice for a play that has parallel plots and pairs of lovers – especially for a play so filled with characters talking about other characters behind their backs. For the first half of the play, it is hard to track which character is trying to do what and to whom. Again, gender-bending and Shakespearean comedy go hand-in-hand. The quarrel is not with the fact of changes made but with their unintended consequences in this specific case: They make the set-up of the story hard to follow.
More importantly, gender-bending deflates dramatic tension during Claudio and Hero’s wedding scene. This is a scene where Claudio, the groom, and Leonato, the father-in-law to be, turn viciously on Hero when they suspect she’s been unfaithful. This is supposed to be a patriarchal meltdown of epic proportions, a heartbreaking slut-shaming scene. By casting Claudio and Leonato as women, we get, intellectually, that a vague statement is being made about toxic masculinity. But we don’t feel it viscerally, which is what needs to happen at this high point in the play. Often in Shakespeare, weddings are not weddings so much as business deals between powerful men. When the deals go awry, the verbal violence that ensues is pathetic because it is heavily gendered. The fantastical value placed upon a woman’s virginity is the powder-keg that needs to explode in order to launch us into the second half of the play. Of course, gender-bending Shakespearean patriarchs can be done to great effect. But here, casting against gender hinders the dramatic potential.
Peter Schuyler, as Borachio and the Friar, stands out because he trusts his text. He takes his time and so helps orient us to where we are in the story. Additionally, his physical work (especially in his costume as the Friar) is hilarious. Likewise, Julet Lindo allows language to work its magic. As the mischievous Don John, Lindo has a kind of casual indifference to her villainy which is recognizably human. Norm Wilson, as the charming Benedick, gives a solid performance that is well-paced and articulate. Manadana Khoshnevisan, as the bumbling Dogberry, commits fully to the sincere silliness of her character, and her keen physical comedy is spectacular.
This adaptation feels important because it is so relevant to Hillsboro. Bag&Baggage partnered with the Westside Queer Resource Center to raise funds and awareness for the local LGBTQ+ community. It’s great when a theater truly serves its community. But with this adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, Bag&Baggage has been lured away from the clarity of the text by the allure of a big concept.
- Bag&Baggage’s Much Ado About Nothing continues through July 28 at The Vault in Hillsboro. Ticket and schedule information here.