‘Much Ado’ mixes Shakespearean romance with mid-century America

This production comments on Elizabethan moral standards using 1950’s doo-wop.

A 1950s doo-wop chorus sways against a background of Messina, Italy, in the time of Shakespeare in MU’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Widely considered one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, “Much Ado” tells the story of two romances through spontaneous hilarity and court politics. This production takes care to show the differences between the two couples by placing them in the context of 1950s American morals.

“I love Beatrice and Benedick,” director Cheryl Black says. “They are the original romantic couple that won’t admit they’re in love. They’re insulting each other in that quick, bantering way, so you know from the get-go that they are a match for each other.”

Black says the relationship between these two secondary characters was incredibly progressive for romantic relationships in Shakespeare’s time, while Claudio and Hero, the primary roles of the play, filled much more traditional roles along the lines of Romeo and Juliet.

“We’re evoking the 1950s in America,” Black says. “To me, that is a time in recent American culture that most closely matches this era in Elizabethan Renaissance England. In the 1950s, you still have these very conservative, very overt sexual double standards for men and women. You marry nice girls and have fun with bad girls, and boys will be boys.”

The doo-wop chorus in this production emphasizes this parallel by acting as a kind of Greek chorus. They sing songs throughout the play like “The Book of Love” by The Monotones and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley that stick to conservative gender and relationship standards.

“The music of the time reflects it and seems to fit amazingly well,” Black says. “Some of the lines in the play correspond very well with lyrics in these songs. The chorus functions in a very kind of critical way, because when you put all of that in context to a contemporary audience, and you’re asking questions like ‘Why do fools fall in love?,’ we get the irony.”

In order to make the doo-wop chorus believable in the context of Shakespeare, the production team decided to blur the lines of geography and chronology and avoided giving the play a concrete setting.

“I think that the production is an imaginary setting, an imaginary location both chronologically and geographically,” Black says. “You have texts created by Shakespeare 400 years ago. We have music and lyrics created by American artists in the 1950s. Our production and our audience are in the Midwest United States in the 21st century.”

Much like the music and original text, the costumes and set had to be carefully balanced to create an ambiguous setting.

“It was decided that the costumes would add the period flavor and the color to this show,” costume designer Kerri Packard says. “I wanted to give the ladies a feeling of the ’50s, so we have petticoats underneath their skirts and scarves and pearls around their necks.”

The set construction reflected this ambiguity as well.

“We talked initially about a very 1950s kind of mid-century modern environment, but as we were discussing ‘Whose house is this?’ and ‘How old is this house?’ and ‘is there more history to it than the 1950s?’” scenic designer Brad Carlson says. “We ended up looking farther back at Italianate architecture, Romanesque architecture. It’s more of a revival style, so it’s not as period-specific as the costumes are, but it clearly is an older house.”

Black considers this lack of specificity to be the most appropriate way to produce Shakespeare’s work because the original productions, as well as the written plays themselves, had a similar ambiguity of time period and location.

“Shakespeare himself was anachronistic, and his texts are, quite frequently,” Black says. “He refers to the major setting of this play as Messina, and he refers to Florence, Italy, so that would suggest Italy. He also has the Prince of Aragon as a major character, which suggests Spain. Then he has characters that are so straight out of England like Dogberry.”

Since this production of “Much Ado” straddles the line between a traditional play and a musical, they found wiggle room in terms of establishing believability with the audience.

“What’s nice about Shakespeare, in kind of the same way we talk about musicals, is it doesn’t really require a fully real, believable space,” Carlson says. “In Shakespeare’s era, they wouldn’t have had all of the things we expect today. It was very theatrical. They would come out and say, ‘Oh, look at the garden’ in the text, and the reason it was in the text was to tell the audience, ‘Hey, imagine we are in a garden.’”

Since Shakespeare relied more on story than a concrete setting, Black found that avoiding hard rules was the best way for her to translate “Much Ado” for a contemporary audience.

“Shakespeare played fast and loose with geography, chronology and cultures,” Black says. “I think that the most faithful way to do Shakespeare, oddly enough, is dislocating and loosening those ties, so that you get this sense of time and the present and how they relate to each other.”

MU’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” played from April 27 to May 1 at the Rhynsburger Theater.

Edited by Katie Rosso | krosso@themaneater.com

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