By Bridgette M. Redman
Even in a war-torn world, we look for places to find joy, love and laughter. Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” has its characters searching for love as they recover from military actions that took them away from their pastoral and peaceful homes.
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival sets its “Much Ado” in the 1950s in a Europe recently recovering from the devastation of World War II and adjusting to the new Cold War era. The women are finding new forms of independence, while both genders still move within fairly narrow roles and sets of expectations.
It is a world, though, where Saren Nofs-Snyder’s Beatrice can be an equal sparring partner with David Blixt’s Benedick, there being no bar to letting loose her barbs of wit and all being amused by the sparks that fly between them. Nofs-Snyder brings an unusual vulnerability to the role, revealing moments of melancholy that hint at painful encounters that drive her current merriment. She hides with a smile and distracts with banter those things which seem to haunt her and which she only barely reveals to Benedick.
While Nofs-Snyder excels in her easy banter and the revelation of a pained spirit, Blixt is most successful in portraying the changed man who has discovered his genuine fondness for Beatrice and an eagerness to indulge his new-found commitment to matters of the heart. His early skewering of love and marriage separates him from comrades who are keen to bury war’s horrors with the tenderness of love and the security of home.
Claudio is typically a role to which little sympathy can attach. He is too easily gulled into believing the latest thing he’s been told, and swerves in his loyalties and loves as quickly as the wind blows. Brandon St. Clair Saunders manages to find a greater depth to the part, imbuing him with an unusual strength. Rather than a gull, his flaw is a rigidity about what is proper and an unwillingness to either cross his prince or be tied to an unfaithful partner. His love for Hero is tender, and his grief at her seeming betrayal is real.
Susaan Jamshidi also creates a Hero who is more than simply a docile daughter and a wronged beloved. She is playful as she participates in the gulling of Beatrice and takes great pleasure in the company of her young friends and relations.
While these four are the central lovers around which the plot revolves, the Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s “Much Ado” is an enjoyable dalliance in large part because of the peripheral characters whose friendships and entertainments are a testament to the value of peace. William Irwin’s Don Pedro and Buz Davis’ Leonato have a warm and easy relationship from which both take great pleasure. They look after the interests of those in their care with a mix of intense loyalty and cheerful repartee. Christina Flynn’s Margaret is young and foolish, while Victoria Hood’s gum cracking is constantly amusing.
Director Janice Blixt combined the roles of Antonio, Don Pedro’s brother, and Ursula, Hero’s waiting woman, to create a comic part for Janet Haley. Haley plays the role with relish, providing a believable clown who can inject foolish comedy without waiting for the later appearance of Dogberry. She is cute and sweet and even her attempts at fury end up defusing tensions in a friendship turned sour.
Alan Ball’s Dogberry is an uneasy fit in this world, a jarring note played with energetic commitment. His interactions with the three young members of the watch and Jeffrey Booth Stringer’s Verges are amusing, and sharp contrast is drawn between their world and the world of the genteel nobility. Dogberry is bombastic, Stringer attempts to be dutiful and the watch members are only just competent enough to apprehend the play’s villains.
Blixt stretches her actors across a large stage with constant awareness of the stage pictures presented by her clusters of performers. She keeps attention sharply focused where it needs to be for the story to be told. Brian Scruggs’ lighting design helps to generate changing moods with gradations of light crafting additional beauty in Jeromy Hopgood’s garden set. The lightning and thunder on the entrance of Don John is somewhat heavy-handed, despite the textual support of the later rainstorm.
Even more mood-setting is the original music by Kate Hopgood. It clearly fixates time and place while making transitions between scenes smooth.
The Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is satisfying in large part because it creates a hopeful world that promises loyalty, friendship and laughter as the aftermaths of conflict, pain and betrayal.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Michigan Shakespeare Festival at Baughman Theatre at Jackson Community College Potter Center, 2111 Emmons Rd., Jackson. Plays in repertory through Aug. 5. $30-$36. 517-998-3673. http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com