- Much Ado about Nothing
For the fourth time in five years, Englishman Graham Watts returned to Fairbanks, Alaska, in May 2005, to cast and direct a performance by the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre. For the FST's thirteenth annual summer [End Page 92] production, Watts chose to direct Much Ado about Nothing. While most of the actors were local Fairbanksans who had worked together on several of the FST's former productions, Watts imported two actors, Hana Lass (Beatrice) and Shawn Law (Don Pedro), from Seattle. Both casting decisions worked out well. The diminutive Lass, fresh from her performance as Rosalind for the Seattle Shakespeare Company, played an energetic and hyperactive Beatrice, a perfect counterpoint to Jake Waid's rather measured and introspective Benedick. Law, who had recently won a Footlight Award from the Seattle Times for his portrayal of Everett Millais in The Countess, demonstrated how an accomplished actor can change Don Pedro from a relatively marginal character to a central role. Clad in his military uniform with a Napoleonic pompadour, oversized white gloves, and with frequent gestures and direct addresses to the audience, Law as Don Pedro was part Bonaparte, part P.T. Barnum, and part Mickey Mouse—prince, clown, instigator, and ringleader for the circus world of Much Ado.
In his director's notes, Watts observed that Much Ado relies heavily on the concept of the play-within-the-play, a device that Shakespeare used so effectively in other plays, most notably Hamlet. Much Ado, he noted, is made up of at least eight such scenes with meta-audiences—what Watts calls "smaller performances"—and the FST production accordingly highlighted such scenes, including the masquerade ball, the gulling of Beatrice and Benedick by the other characters, the arrest of Conrade and Borachio, and the two wedding scenes. This type of staging seems to work particularly well for outdoor community theatre productions, since it effectively erases the already blurred lines between stage and audience, thus making the actors part of the audience and the audience feel like it is part of the action of the play.
The production, ostensibly set in an antebellum Southern mansion, allowed costume designer Claudia Lively to demonstrate her more than considerable talent. The female characters wore flowing gowns of the ante-bellum period, and the military uniforms that many of the male characters wore were rather toy-soldierish and understated—white pants with blue tunics, gold braid, and brass buttons. This relative understatement served as a counterpoint to the lavish costuming of the masquerade ball and the wedding scenes. This is where Claudia Lively really excelled—the mix of colors and fabric textures of the masquerade costumes and elaborate headpieces and masks were truly extraordinary—something that one might expect to see on Broadway rather than in the woods of central Alaska. Combined with the original music score by Sarah Llewellyn, the masquerade and wedding scenes were visual and musical feasts. [End Page 93]
Since it has become a regular feature in high school classrooms across the United States, the 1993 film version of Much Ado, starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, has cast long shadows over many ensuing community theatre productions of the play. Each production invariably includes elements of set, costume design and characterization that beg comparison to the film. The FST production was no exception to this rule, although in several scenes, Watts subtly managed to turn imitation from flattery to parody. The outdoor scenes in the Branagh film, for example, take place near the fountain and the cypress grove adjacent to the Tuscan villa. Similarly, the FST production included a central fountain on an elevated stage and the surrounding forest served as a stand-in for the cypress grove. In the...