Much Ado About Nothing is one of William Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, and not just because of its ease of access to modern audiences.
“It combines this clever and truly intoxicating war of mind between the sexes with the darker theme of mistrust and betrayal,” says Joanne Greenberg, who directs the upcoming production of Stowe Theater Guild.
“There is such satisfaction for the public to watch this training and intelligent couple being made to admit that all of these verbal games are the attraction of equal minds,” she said. “Watching them drop that and allow themselves to fall in love is really satisfying.”
Stowe Theater Guild, the area’s long-standing community theater, presents Much Ado About Nothing October 7-23 at the Stowe Town Hall Theater, with performances at 7:30 pm Thursday through Saturday.
When the war ends, love is in the air when Commander Don Pedro and his company visit Leonato’s home in Messina, Italy. But Leonato’s soldier friends are causing a lot of noise – both hilariously and seriously – in the form of a battle between the sexes.
Beatrice and Benedick engage in a “merry war of the mind”, training intelligently to hide their mutual affection. Claudio and Hero openly swear theirs, only to be defeated by the evil Don John and his allies. Can the team of clumsy but kind-hearted gendarmes bring harmony to this house at war?
Greenberg, a Montpellier-based independent theater professional, moved the action to Little Italy from New York City in the 1920s.
“I wanted to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences by not having that aloof Elizabethan look,” she said. “I also wanted to place it in an immigration context where the traditional family values of Shakespeare’s original exist and make sense.”
In an immigrant milieu like Little Italy, there were generational tensions over issues of family honor, gender roles, and marital conventions.
“It all still matches the 1920s if you’re in a place like Little Italy,” Greenberg said. “Men and women, and children, can clash over traditional roles in a changing world. It becomes something recognizable for the contemporary public.
“He also has great styles and music.”
Adding to the easy accessibility of the comedy is that it is three quarters of prose – in iambic pentameter.
“The conventional wisdom is that poetry is for the upper classes and prose is for the lower classes,” Greenberg said. “It’s not that simple in this room. Prose works for the mind, thought, and logic, and there’s a lot of it all in this piece. That’s why even Beatrice and Benedick talk to each other in prose.
Poetry is used for formal scenes, including both wedding ceremonies.
“The only soliloquy in poetry is that of Beatrice, and that’s supposedly because hers is more emotional,” Greenberg said. “Then Benedick’s long line, ‘I’m not going to die single after all,’ where he tries to use logic to try to convince himself he’s not inconsistent,” is in prose.
“I think a selling point for a lot of people is that the prose is more accessible,” she said.
The 14-member cast is a mix of professional and veteran community actors. Preparations for the play actually began before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So that’s been a challenge,” Greenberg said. “People made a commitment to the original and couldn’t stay for the postponement; people came on board very recently. So it wasn’t a single audition that drew all 14 people. Some people have been in their roles and have literally been thinking about it since February 2020, ”she said.
Live rehearsals began in May.
“I have a really good cast,” Greenberg said.
In order to facilitate its wide distribution, the physical staging employs different levels.
“The main house has a terrace, a sort of elegant staircase,” Greenberg said. “On the sides there are bodegas because it’s Little Italy from the 1920s. It provides other play spaces, and there’s a push, so there’s a lot of scenic variety and leveling, which I think is useful with a great Shakespeare.
Much of the popularity of Much Ado About Nothing comes from delivering its message almost subconsciously through sheer entertainment.
“In addition to the relevance of the clash of the traditional world and the changing roles in an evolving world and the clash of minds, and what a pleasure it is, I guess the other piece that I find intriguing and charming is its portrayal of Class distinctions, “said Greenberg.” They still exist in Shakespeare’s plays, but in this one in particular, it is the clumsy thugs who uncover the criminal deception to which the nobles are blind.
“The upper classes in this room are so quick to believe the slanders of others against women, and so vehement to censor women. These are the thugs who have the best instincts and provide the resolution, ”she said. “It is really very satisfying.”
Of course, “all Shakespeare comedies end in marriage, not just happiness.”