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.
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.
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.
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.
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.