Peter Schuyler

‘Much Ado’: Where’s the story?

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Shakespeare's great comedy is glorious to look at. But its big concept gets in the way of the storytelling.

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.

Phillip J. Berns as Bertram and Christian Mitchell as Hero. Photo: Casey Campbell

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.

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Bag & Baggage’s ‘Richard III’: Tricky Dick

Scott Palmer’s Shakespeare adaptation uses comedy to gain sympathy for the devil.

I’m not sure which is the more demented notion: Bag & Baggage Productions turning Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy Richard III into a comedy, or seeing it outdoors on Hillsboro’s charming Main Street in 100°+ temperatures. In fact, Bag & Baggage’s Richard III is both a perfect summer theater experience — and way too fulfilling to be a mere summer fling. Thanks to the shade of the buildings looming over Hillsboro’s Civic Center Plaza and a gentle breeze, even the heat proved no problem. An audacious production like this happens only once in a blue moon, and fortunately, there’s one rising this weekend.

Peter Schuyler, Eric St. Cyr and Eric Nepom star in Bag & Baggage Productions' Richard III. Photo: Casey Campbell.

Peter Schuyler, Eric St. Cyr and Eric Nepom star in Bag & Baggage Productions’ Richard III. Photo: Casey Campbell.

B&B Artistic Director Scott Palmer conceived this Richard’s crazy concept — transforming one of theater’s best known bloody tragedies into a comedy — a dozen years ago when he was running Scotland’s Glasgow Repertory Company. What would the story of an ambitious English lord who’s willing to murder and manipulate even his own family members in order to claim the crown look like, Palmer wondered, viewed through its antihero’s evil eyes?

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Fear Factor: Bag & Baggage’s The Crucible

New production of Arthur Miller's classic turns stony period piece into present-day masterpiece

In the darkness at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, the fear begins even before the lights go up, in a haunting unscripted addition whose impact might be severely lessened if disclosed here. Suffice it to say that Bag & Baggage Productions artistic director Scott Palmer’s bold, Blair Witchy opening gambit — while entirely in keeping with the story — instantly ratchets the tension in Arthur Miller’s half century old The Crucible to maximum immediate urgency.

In school, many of us learned that  is “an allegorical lens through which Miller examines the nature of [U. S. Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s Red Scare” via a tragedy set during the 1692 Salem witch trials, write in his program notes to the company’s new production. But while that’s true, Palmer believes the 1953 American classic is really about something much deeper, much rawer than McCarthyism or even its other obvious themes of extremism, religious tyranny, or mob mentality. Miller, writes Palmer, “is asking questions about what happens to us when we are afraid.”

Witchful thinking:

Witchful thinking: Hannah Brumley as Susannah Walcott, Arianne Jacques as Abigail Williams, Melori Mirashrafi as Betty Parris and Emily Upton as Mercy Lewis, in Bag & Baggage Productions’ The Crucible. Photo by Casey Campbell Photography.

Tying its new production to this more universal impulse helps B&B’s The Crucible maintain everything that’s always made the play powerful and memorable (despite the primacy of its fierce ideals over its relatively weak characterizations), while also imbuing it with an urgency and immediacy that make a play set during the 17th century hit hard today. Fear, unfortunately, is always a current topic — especially when so many political, religious and and other leaders lurk ever ready to exploit it.

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