Rep Updates Shakespeare in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

But it's the original lines that carry a fun show with grunge rock and costumes added.

By - Jan 17th, 2023 01:53 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Much Ado About Nothing in the Quadracci Powerhouse January 10 – February 12, 2023. Pictured: The cast of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Much Ado About Nothing in the Quadracci Powerhouse January 10 – February 12, 2023. Pictured: The cast of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Striving to modernize a famous Shakespearean comedy, frequent Milwaukee Rep music director Dan Kazemi turned himself into a theatrically attuned composer to provide original songs (with 16th century lyrics) in the style of wailing, clanging 1990s grunge rock.

The performers sport modern musical instruments and a few excellent singers are scattered among them, including Alex Keiper as a comic Beatrice with serious Janis Joplin power. She also finds modern ways to energize Beatrice’s quips.

Costumer Mieka van der Ploeg has echoed not just the plaid flannel shirts, torn nylons and cutoff jeans of the 1990s era but fashioned military costumes reminiscent of both the Gulf War and modern dress uniforms. Whether in fatigue or jeans, American Players Theatre veteran Nate Burger plays Benedick with an acrobatic splash of broad wit and self-mocking grimaces.

Romantic lead Claudio (a sometimes-overactive Kenneth Hamilton) sports dreadlocks. Choreographer Jenn Rose mixes disco, military and Broadway showtune maneuvers. Spotlights flash about to emulate disco, pillars move for comic effect and director Laura Braza finds some antic touches of 1990s culture to comment on the love sparring, false accusation, archaic puns and fake death that are the familiar plot gimmicks of the original. Some work but too often the necks of guitars are stroked like a phallic symbol.

But a strange thing is happening through Feb. 12 at the Quadracci Playhouse. In trying to make too much of something out of Much Ado About Nothing, the 1990s aura basically reminds patrons of the strength of the original (performed with few cuts in the text). Sure, some of the punning is stilted for today’s ears, some of the domestic contrivances barely believable, some of the broadness mawkish. Thus the temptation – easy for theaters to give into — to add echoes of recent pop music and dress, even if it takes some effort to justify.

But the show’s central focus remains the wit of Beatrice and Benedick who joust broadly in their love-hate romance as the ensemble connives to trick the cynical duo into love. The bard’s methods of misadventure for young love are hardly fresh, but good acting can make it so.

The dramatics descend into telegraphed melodrama in the second half, but this is actually a better stretch for the production. It lets director Braza lean on the Shakespeare veterans in the company, rather than seek even more 1990s touches. There are some classically capable actors who may not catch all the possibilities, but grab some quite well – as if they have been itching for those moments.

Some, like Hamilton, remain overwrought, as if the 1990s aura still weighs too heavily on his interpretation (it’s a tough part in the best of circumstances, since Claudio abandons his bride at the altar only to embrace her one act later). But other performers rise in ability. As Don Pedro, Mark Corkins relishes the ingratiating sides of the part and enjoys his moments of being misled. Rep veteran Jonathan Gillard Day comes more alive when Shakespeare tests his adeptness as an irate, wronged and then contrite father figure.

Michael Doherty doubles amusingly as a fussy nobleman and the Three Stooges-like constable Dogberry. Michelle Shupe provides overly broad villainy as a gender switching Don John (who escapes onstage judgment) and Will Mobley and Katrien Van Riel provide double duty with good singing and solid acting.

Sometimes out of the bit parts emerge some notable talents, such as Daydra Smith and Drew Mitchell, though the production also demonstrates that knowing Shakespeare and knowing how to do Shakespeare are different creatures indeed.

This is not a bump-free production. Technically adept, it has trouble holding its ideas together and chooses a rather blunt path to the big comic moments. But the grunge overlay has some winning moments, particularly in how composer Kazemi connects grunge death longings to the bard. And then there is Shakespeare, who has some pretty juicy wins of his own.

Much Ado About Nothing Gallery

One thought on “Theater: Rep Updates Shakespeare in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’”

  1. Badgerbanshee says:

    A good review. I saw this Sunday and enjoyed it a great deal. I also like Shakespeare. But I also enjoyed the music, and grunge is not a style I’m all that fond of. The give and take between Beatrice and Benadick has always been the heart of this play and this continues in the Reps version. I commend the Rep for not being afraid to think outside the traditional box when putting on Shakespeare plays. I also enjoyed last year’s take on “As You Like It,” featuring Beatles tune. Much Ado About Nothing plays a little closer to the original.
    By the way, at Sunday’s performance, the role of Beatrice was taken by an understudy (whose name I can’t seem to find anywhere. She was also excellent and from all I’ve heard, had big Doc Martens to fill in for Keiper.

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