by Jeff Grygny
“I saw this amazing show! It was romantic, exciting, with great music and dancing, And it was SO funny! I even cried at the end! ” “Really? What was it?” “Shakespeare!” is something nobody says. Until recently that is, when we cracked the code for making Shakespeare work in the twenty-first century: substituting pop songs for the poetry that was the pop music of Shakespeare’s time. Turns out that switching out electric guitars and drum kits for lutes and tabors is the secret ingredient to bringing out all the rich umami goodness of Shakespeare’s plays for contemporary audiences. The Milwaukee Rep’s new production of Much Ado About Nothing reveals the play’s humanity and wit—and what’s more, makes it hip, smart, and tremendously fun to watch. It’s amazing what can happen with a fresh musical approach, some loving attention to the text, and an ensemble of brilliant actors, musicians, and comedians who clearly love what they’re doing. In the skilled hands of Director Laura Braza, the show simply rocks.
Setting the play in Seattle in the 1990s is an intriguing way to explore the play’s military culture: the men are just returning from a victorious war, as G.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Shield had successfully driven Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait (the time seems so innocent in this age of social media and MAGA, doesn’t it?). The historical juxtaposition generates both light and heat, highlighting the parallels between Elizabethan power and America’s boo-ya triumphalism. It’s impressive, too, how Music Director Dan Kazemi enlists the dirty chords of Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots to evoke a powerful mood, concocting a shiny, bombastic, happy-sad, fast-slow-fast theater bomb much befitting Much Ado’s high emotions and world-weary wisdom, that carries us along irresistibly for three hours (including a twenty-minute intermission). The presence of live musicians among the cast adds immeasurably, as always.
Best of all, the production shamelessly embraces the theatricality of Elizabethan theater, shifting from elevated realism to farce to musical theater without dropping a beat. The show opens with rebel girl Beatrice passing a joint with her friends and belting out a Nirvana-esque ballad to self-conscious anomie in a piercing voice that could shatter glass in the balcony. The lyrics were written by Louise Labé, an obscure cross-dressing French poet who died when Shakespeare was around two years old (Her story would have made an interesting note in the show’s play guide, but it’s oddly absent). Later, a delicious party scene, lit like a high-end nightclub, breaks into choreography that seems to burst from the sheer joy of victory, youth, and privilege, like the Platonic ideal of an impossibly cool frat party: many kudos to choreographer Jenn Rose. In an age when art is often supposed to be a vehicle for dispensing what’s good for us, this embrace of pure pleasure feels almost wicked.
So it is with the play’s comedy. Time and again the actors hit the sweet spot between credibility and clowning. Forget the 500 year old puns: Shakespeare is hilarious. Mark Corkins’ Don Pedro is on fire with mirth and camaraderie. The reliable Jonathan Girard Daly brings humanity to what could easily be a generic patriarch. Nate Burger lends pitch perfect sitcom energy to his role of Benedick, all bluster and insecurity: when he and Alex Keiper’s Beatrice meet, their verbal duels glitter. Meanwhile, Keiper fans the coals under a simmering cauldron of rage, no hotter than in her “O that I were a man” speech. As the incompetent marshal Dogberry and his factotum, Michael Doherty and Will Mobley leave no shtick unturned in their folie a deux of utterly unwarranted machismo, with inspired silliness reminiscent of the old SCTV show. And as a cleric officiating a marriage gone south, Daydra Smith speaks with firm authority while the men are all running around with their bruised honor.
Every era remakes Shakespeare after it’s own concerns: The Victorians took out all the depressing bits; in the 60’s the plays were anti-establishment and existential. Director Braza’s rendering becomes a thorough and very effective feminist treatise. Even more impressively, she doesn’t turn the men into villains, but rather shows how the patriarchal structure of society itself is to blame. Of course, with such strong choices. there are inevitably trade-offs. The character of Benedick loses some of his appealing self-awareness: his line, probably my favorite in all of the plays, “man is a giddy thing,” seems to not have made the cut, as if to underscore that it’s institutional sexism, not human folly, that caused the troubles. Also notably absent is any reference to the most significant development of grunge culture (which, honestly, pretty much was a guy thing): the famous 1999 “Battle of Seattle,” when youth anti-globalization protests spread across the world. Granted, there’s little to do with class struggle in Much Ado. But the world historical event is even missing from the play guide’s 1990s timeline (though we do read there about the second Congo war for some reason). Not terribly shocking perhaps, for a theater beholden to corporate funding.
But peace: I’d happily attend a dozen feminist treatises if they were as fun and pleasurable as this show. And since Braza is the Rep’s current Associate Artistic Director, we can hope for many more good things from her in the future. Hey nonny nonny, everyone! You owe it to yourself to see this play!
Milwaukee Rep presents
Much Ado About Nothing
by William Shakespeare
playing through February 12, 2023