With Much Ado, Shakespeare’s Voice Comes Roaring Back

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Photo of Rick Holmes and Kate Jennings Grant in Much Ado About Nothing by Tony Powell

More than two years after the pandemic obliterated theater as we knew it, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing proves it’s one production that was well worth the wait. STC Artistic Director Simon Godwin has reimagined this play in ways that amplify its timeless themes, capitalize on its comic possibilities and, best of all, showcase the wit and beauty of every line. Ever conscious of expanding Shakespeare’s audience, Godwin has created a production to delight people of every sensibility.

The brilliance begins with setting the play in a TV news studio, with all the main characters neatly recast as news anchors, staffers and corporate moguls. This is no random conceit. The play’s title is a play on the words “nothing” and “noting,” and centering the action around a gossipy newscast deftly emphasizes that most of the characters are driven by information they’ve overheard. As a bonus, Godwin uses the newsroom device to hilarious effect when, throughout the play, the plot is interrupted for breaking news of deaths, marriages, murders and intrigue lifted straight out of Hamlet, King Lear and countless other Shakespearean plays.

We enter the studio as newsroom manager Leonato (Ed Gero) announces the return of Benedick (Rick Holmes) to serve as co-anchor with Beatrice (Kate Jennings Grant), who responds with profound dismay and hints at their rocky past. When Benedick’s friend Don Pedro asks if she has lost Benedick’s heart, Beatrice replies, “Indeed, my lord, he lent it me a while, and I gave him use [interest] for it, a double heart for his single one. Marry, once before he won it of me, with false dice.”

Photo of Nicole King, Kate Jennings Grant, and Edward Gero in Much Ado About Nothing by Tony Powell.

Enter weatherman Claudio (Paul Deo, Jr.), who falls instantly and hopelessly in love with Hero (Nicole King), the sportscaster. What could foil true love at first sight? The dastardly plot of Don John (Justin Adams), who proclaims to the audience, “It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.”

Having set the stage, the play proceeds to convert the sparring Benedick and Beatrice into lovers and allies while derailing but then reinstating the marriage of Claudio and Hero. We also see the wicked Don John brought to justice by a bumbling team of security guards led by Dogberry (Dave Quay), who has a gift for constantly saying the opposite of what he means but somehow always speaking the truth.

As usual for Shakespeare, all these relationships and plot twists can be tough to follow. But  instead of streamlining the story or trimming the script, Godwin entrusts the language to actors who know how to breathe life into the words. The meaning is further illuminated in the cast’s facial expressions, stage business and even the broadest physical comedy, liberally riffing on yet remaining firmly rooted in Shakespeare’s text.

In the lead roles, Holmes and Grant are masters of Shakespeare’s repartee and bring the breadth and nuance that their characters demand. They both seamlessly evolve from somewhat arrogant egotists to deluded clowns and finally earnest romantics and champions of the slandered Hero. In their eavesdropping scenes, they rise to the challenge of the most ridiculous physical stunts, whether hiding in plain view behind a planter, suffering blasts of foam from a fire extinguisher or, after being sprinkled with Skinny Pop while concealed in a rolling dumpster, ejecting little puffs of corn trapped in various orifices.

As Beatrice, Grant is equally compelling in trading barbs with Benedick as in declaring her rage at Claudio for disgracing Hero. Building to a crescendo, she leaves the audience spellbound with her ferocious cry: “O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.”

Photo of the cast of Much Ado About Nothing by Tony Powell.

The supporting cast is just as skillful in managing challenging transformations. Gero, a revered STC veteran, portrays a jovial Leonato with playful whimsy until he needs to express multilayered grief and fury, first in believing that his daughter, Hero, has been unfaithful, and then after realizing she’s been terribly wronged. As Hero, King initially exudes carefree innocence, but when she’s left at the altar, she defends her honor with impressive force. And as Claudio, Deo convincingly evolves from a lovesick suitor to a heartless cad and then a repentant sinner.

Beyond strong performances, the production serves up pure entertainment. Composer Michael Bruce and choreographer Jesse Kovarsky have concocted a rousing disco rendition of “Hey Nonny Nonny,” a celebratory line dance featuring the entire cast. And costume designer Evie Gurney has created countless ensembles that reflect each character’s persona for every occasion, including Benedick and Claudio’s Batman and Robin outfits and Gero’s Yankees uniform for the masked ball.

Most gratifying of all, scenic designer Alexander Dodge has harnessed the full capabilities of Harman Hall’s stage, creating rotating sets that pivot from large public spaces to intimate settings. It’s all framed by projection designer Aaron Rhyne’s amusing and sometimes revealing videos that appear on 11 TV screens. If Much Ado is any indication, STC audiences can look forward to expertly crafted Shakespearean productions on the grand scale that Harman Hall was built to support.

Much Ado About Nothing has been extended through December 18. Don’t miss your last chance to see the show. Tickets start at just $35. Order online or call 202-547-1122).