William Shakespeare, arguably the most well-known playwright in the English language, has had his works produced and reproduced on and off college campuses for centuries. For each production, familiar challenges emerge: How can we keep work that is so old perpetually fresh and exciting? How can we prevent romance, in all its controversial glory, from becoming cemented in a historical milieu long since come and gone?
The Stanford Shakespeare Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” a light-hearted counterpart to its performance of “Lear” earlier this year, challenges the very basis of these questions. Set in the decadent world of New York City in the 1920s, Stan Shakes’ swanky interpretation of the quintessential Shakespearean rom-com does not disappoint. Shrouded in the fantastic costume design of Elizabeth Margolin ’17, Shakespeare’s classic elites are reimagined as post-war socialites committed to scheming up new and absurd ways of spending their copious amounts of free time. Their world of rumor, romance and revenge leads them to ruin weddings, masquerade as matchmakers and drink enough to make me question which I was more conscious of: my class background or my sobriety.
The story follows two sets of lovers as they are tricked into falling in and out of love with one another; we follow the cavalier Count Claudio (Zachary Damman ’18) and Hero (Heather Connelly ’18), whose romance is eclipsed by the altogether more misanthropical relationship between Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Jackie Emerson ’17) and Claudio’s friend Benedick (Matthew Libby ’17). As in most Shakespearean comedies, the real romance emerges between the audience and its unquenchable thirst for gossip. Set in the remote picnic area of the Toyon courtyard, with a stage centered in what almost feels like a dramatically-lit urban fairy circle, this outdoor locale allows audiences one of the most authentic Shakespeare-viewing experiences possible. Nestled close to loved ones, watching dusk set in as the events surrounding us unfold, the sense of community is palpable. United by our own laughter, enchantment and collective hatred for the most despicable characters, we are swept up in the world of these outlandish debutantes in their exploration of human folly.
The time-specific setting of the piece makes for a whimsical and alluring experience, immersing us in the thrill and utter absurdity of the roaring twenties. Bright colors and upbeat Postmodern Jukebox tunes lull us into a romanticization of the era which rivals even the characters’ romanticization of one another. But in addition to all this aesthetic wonder, director Andrew Whipple’s decision to transform the circumstances surrounding “Much Ado” would have been even more poignant had there been more historical follow-through. Though the lavish world of Whipple’s reimagined elites is unmistakably tied to Shakespeare’s interest in bourgeois realism, it is sometimes unclear whether these connections are socially critical or purely aesthetic. While some aspects of the show — the endless liquor, wild parties and extravagant displays of wealth — feel divorced from the social implications of life in the American 1920s, there are other moments at which the absurdity of this representation of class and gender seem acutely self-aware. When false accusations against Hero’s fidelity lead Claudio to leave her at the altar, her suffering might feel even more tragic if we had a way to contextualize it within the confines of this new social environment. When we hear Beatrice’s impassioned speech about the burden of womanhood, her grievances might hit closer to home if we knew how to incorporate it into the bougieness of the time in which she lives.
Regardless, Shakes has outdone itself. In a high-caliber performance, each actor does an astounding job of making the words of Shakespeare — dense and indecipherable as they can often be — accessible to the general public. A series of strong technical and interpretive choices help prevent us from lapsing into utter confusion about who’s falling in and out of love and who’s trying to undermine whom. As our headstrong and heartwarming romantic leads, Emerson and Libby steal the show with their witty banter, high energy and sharp comedic timing. Whipple varnishes the show with outrageous games of hide-and-seek, slapstick humor and endless spit takes. Louis McWilliams’ ’16 performance as Don Pedro is a comedic highlight throughout, and Malaika Murphy-Sierra’s ’17 constant ad-libbing is a breath of fresh air amidst a group of characters who sometimes tend to take themselves too seriously.
Though there are many answers to the question of how to keep Shakespeare relevant, the simplest is that the human condition is always relatable. We fall for pretty faces and dirty tricks, uplifting love stories and jokes about no one wanting to date crazy Ursula. And ultimately, this is what the Stanford Shakespeare Company allows us to participate in. Glittering dresses and twinkling champagne glasses aside, “Much Ado About Nothing” reminds us that theater (and particularly Shakespeare) is about more than intellect and aesthetics. It’s about having fun, and creating the moments of laughter, joy and beauty we need in order to function as a community. It takes an old form of art — kept alive, for many, only between the dusty pages of a book — and breathes life into it. And for a brief evening, we get to be a part of that.
Contact Madelaine Bixler at mbixler ‘at’ stanford.edu.