Shakespeare @ the Hanna: Clowns After 1599

We went to see the Great Lakes Theater production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (MAAN) last Friday. The play is a comic battle of wits between Benedict and Beatrice, who eventually realize that they love each other and live happily ever after. As our favorite YouTube summary, Overly Sarcastic Productions, describes it, there’s Sarcastic Dude Benedict and Sarcastic Chick Beatrice, Forgettable Dude Claudio and Forgettable Chick Hero, Prince Trustworthy Don Pedro and Prince Untrustworthy Don John. With Don Pedro’s help, both couples could have been credibly, happily married within the first act except for Don John’s nefarious deception, which causes considerable delay and some of the darkest moments in any of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Director Charles Fee has set this production in the 1920’s, the decade of Josephine Baker, Tallulah Bankhead, and Zelda Fitzgerald, “flappers” noted for their wisecracking iconoclasm. Sarcastic Beatrice, Fee points out in program notes, accomplishes everything as herself without disguising herself as a man. If she had lived in the 1920’s, he seems to suggest, she would have been a flapper.

Shakespeare has set this play in Messina, a port city in Northeast Sicily, a prescient choice in that even today it’s still an important tourist destination noted for its excellent year-round climate and beautiful beaches; then and now an appropriate setting for the masked balls and carefree follies that the playwright and the director have set forth to entertain us.

So, as the lights come up on Act I Scene I in the Hanna Theatre we see the cast in 1920’s resort wear (Costume Designer Alex Jaeger) looking expectantly past us into the sea beyond. There are happy, expectant faces and a telescope. A few lines of dialogue between Leonato, Governor of Messina (David Anthony Smith), and a Messenger tell us that the men are returning from a good war won. Bad news there is none.

The lighting by Rick Martin picks up on the idea of sunny Sicily and the multi-level, three dimensional set by Jeff Herrmann provides what look like stucco covered stone structures and an abundance of lush bougainvillea on trellises. The set’s central tower can be quickly rotated to show 4 different sides appropriate to different scenes and the trellises provide handy hiding places so that the characters can eavesdrop on one another.

After Don Pedro (Lynn Robert Berg) and Leonato have exchanged warm greetings, Beatrice (Laura Welsh Berg) and Benedick (Jeffrey C. Hawkins) get down to business, insulting and belittling each other. Both fire off some excellent zingers, Beatrice especially, but the astute playgoer cannot help but wonder if there’s a back story that accounts for all this animosity. Stay tuned.

In the case of Don John (Nick Steen), we need not search for a motivating back story, for he’s one of Shakespeare’s unmotivated villains. As he himself explains, “Though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.”

Meanwhile, Claudio has button-holed Benedick and is declaring his love for Hero, Leonato’s daughter. As played by Domonique Champion, this Claudio is no Forgettable Dude but, as we saw in GLT’s recent Tempest (A Tempest in America – Cleveland Concert Dance), a high bouncing lover of strangely believable ardor.

Benedick responds to Claudio’s protestations of love with many, many puns on “horns” as in “cuckold’s horns.” Benedick seems to be giving voice to his misogyny and his vow never to marry but Shakespeare is also foreshadowing dire later developments. Again, stay tuned.

And what of this production’s Hero, Kailey Boyle? She seems a capable actor and well cast, but Shakespeare has given Hero so few lines that she can scarcely emerge from behind her Forgettable Chick mantle until a bit of business with a garden hose…

So, we have Claudio in love with Hero but he has yet to win her or her father’s consent; Beatrice and Benedick in love with each other but unable to own up to that love; Prince Trustworthy Don Pedro looking for a way to do good; and Prince Untrustworthy Don John looking for a way to do evil. Trust Shakespeare to borrow and steal the necessary twists and turns of plot and trust Fee to stage it in a way that actually makes a 500 year-old comedy funny.

Don Pedro tells Claudio that he’ll win over Hero and her father, something he undertakes at a masked ball with much eavesdropping and one character masquerading as another. Fee and Sound Designer / Composer Matthew Webb make all this audible amidst the 1920’s dance music by fading the music in and out, allowing islands of dialogue to stand out.

With Hero and Claudio happily engaged, the characters turn their attention to Beatrice and Benedick. Shakespeare has Don Pedro say that Beatrice would make an excellent wife for Benedick at which Fee has all the actors present burst into laughter. But Don Pedro persists and enlists Claudio, Leonato, and Hero in his scheme to make Beatrice and Benedict fall in love with each other.

For the first step in their plan, they approach Benedick while he is sunbathing. Shakespeare has given Benedick an indecisive speech to the effect that he will never marry or maybe he will but as he says his lines he performs some very funny business applying sunblock, getting some in his eye (ouch!), putting on vintage sunglasses, and hinging up one lens the better to see who is coming. It’s Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio and they’re talking about him. “I will hide me in the arbor,” he says, and Fee has him make a series of comic attempts to hide, each one more inept than the last.

 Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio pretend not to see Benedick. Don Pedro says, “Come hither, Leonato. What was it you told me of today, that your niece Beatrice was in love with Signior Benedick?” Leonato reads his lines from a cue sheet but Benedick, who believes he is hidden, is completely fooled.

In a parallel scene, Hero and her waiting gentlewoman, Ursula (Jodi Dominick), talk up Benedick’s virtues and his love for Beatrice as Beatrice eavesdrops. All as Shakespeare wrote it until Hero picks up a garden hose and waters the trellis that Beatrice is hiding behind. That produces no small cry from Beatrice! But still, Hero and Ursula pretend not to see her.

Oh Hero! If Shakespeare had given you such a bit of business no one would call you Forgettable Chick.

Kindly note, Dear Reader, at this point both couples are well on their way toward a happy ending. But then, Don John finds a way to do evil. He arranges for his henchman, Borachio (James Alexander Rankin), to have sex with Hero’s gentlewoman, Margaret (Mia Soriano), in Hero’s room. Don John arranges for Claudio and Don Pedro to overhear and they believe they are hearing Hero have sex with some strange man. The Bed Trick, coarse and implausible as it is, has worked to advance another of Shakespeare’s plots. Claudio is deeply hurt, believing that he has been cuckolded and that Hero is not what she seems. At the wedding, Claudio denounces Hero, a very dark moment that starts the play down a slippery slope. Leonato challenges Claudio to a duel. Beatrice demands that Benedick avenge her cousin Hero by killing Claudio and Benedick reluctantly agrees. It doesn’t take much to imagine a final curtain with the stage piled high with corpses. One might expect Claudio to kill Leonato, Benedick to kill Claudio, Hero to kill herself, etc. Not a good look for a comedy.

But who? Who will come to the rescue and prevent this dire turn of events? A clown? But first, we must digress into (ahem) scholarly considerations.

As James Shapiro explains in A year in the Life of William Shakespeare – 1599, the conflict between clown and playwright was a major annoyance to Shakespeare as well as to other Elizabethan playwrights. Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Dekker all complained in writing about clowns and their improvised afterpieces, ribald “jigs” rife with scatological doggerel that could high jack a playwright’s serious intent. Clowns improvising and breaking the fourth wall were not conducive to the more naturalistic drama and realistic characters that Shakespeare was moving towards.

So, it seems likely that when Shakespeare and the noted clown Will Kemp parted company in 1599 it may well have precipitated a torrent of productivity for Shakespeare. According to Shapiro, that was the year Shakespeare went from being a good playwright to a great one. During 1599 he finished Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It in quick succession, then drafted Hamlet, all notably more naturalistic and replete with characters like Hamlet, Brutus, and Rosalind who, as Shapiro writes, “feel real.”

The dates that Shakespeare wrote his various plays are difficult to pin down, but if, as GLT’s playnotes assert, MAAN was also written in 1599, and if it was the last play Shakespeare wrote with clown Kemp in mind, then it’s reasonable to look for a mix of old and new in MAAN.

And a mix of old and new is exactly what we find there. The old: a villain, Don John, with no back story; Claudio’s (almost) love-at-first sight love for Hero. Versus the new: Beatrice and Benedick’s development from hate to love; and a very subtle, deep back story that accounts for their animosity.

When in Act II Scene I Don Pedro says, “Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick,” Beatrice replies, “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me a while; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one.” Elizabethans knew well that two heartbeats in a woman indicated pregnancy. Thus, Beatrice seems to indicate that she once became pregnant by Benedick. Did she tell him? Does Don Pedro understand her meaning? We don’t know, but that pregnancy would certainly account for considerable animosity on Beatrice’s part. See our review (REVIEW: Two Hearts – A Shakespeare Mystery Solved | CoolCleveland) of an original GLT play that presented this intriguing possibility some years ago.

 Even after Kemp’s departure, the Chamberlain’s Men still had clowns, comic characters, and physical comedy, but after 1599 jigs and improvised afterpieces were a thing of the past.

GLT still has clowns, too, and a good thing, for Constable Dogberry (Joe Wegner) saves the day in MAAN.

By the time Claudio has denounced Hero and the round of challenges has started the play down its slippery slope, we’ve already met Constable Dogberry, his aged partner Verges (M. A. Taylor), and the members of the watch. They do not inspire confidence. Dogberry uses so many malaprops that it’s sheer guesswork understanding what he means. Verges looks and sounds like he belongs in a geriatric facility. (That posture! That gait! That voice! He’s one of the funniest comic portrayals of a geezer that we’ve ever seen.)The other members of the watch are similarly bungling and clueless.

But for all their apparent incompetence, Dogberry and company successfully hide themselves, eavesdrop on Borachio and Conrade (Jerell Williams) while Borachio boasts of fooling Claudio and Don Pedro with the bed trick, and trap the two villains in a net.

So, malaprops and an abundance of very excellent pratfalls notwithstanding, it looks as though Dogberry and Verges will save the day but when they show up at Leonato’s house and try to tell the Governor of the evil plot that they have come upon, alas, their malaprops and digressions tax Leonato’s patience and he dismisses them and departs before he understands them.

The same thing starts to happen in a subsequent scene when the prisoners are brought before a Sexton (Jodi Dominick) and Dogberry proceeds to mangle his case. But fortunately, the Sexton, in her robes and black framed glasses, coaxes the facts out of members of the watch and proceeds to go to Leonato to explain the case to him. From here on, everything proceeds rapidly toward a happy ending although…

Wegner works in more pratfalls, each one totally surprising. How does he fall so precipitously without injuring himself? What is so treacherous about those four ordinary looking steps? For his last descent of the stairs, Wegner throws the audience a change up by walking down ever so slowly and carefully, arriving at the bottom step safe and sound just before ancient geezer Taylor suddenly falls flat on his face. Yes, indeed. There’s still physical comedy after 1599.

We watched Great Lakes Theater perform Much Ado About Nothing at the Hanna Theatre on Friday 4/1/2022.

Next up for Great Lakes Theater, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps 4/29 – May 22, 2022 at the Hanna Theatre. 216-241-6000 or GreatLakesTheater.org for tickets.

Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas

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