Yes, it’s a drag to have to stay at home instead of seeing our favorite performers live—but then again, after a little adjustment, it’s amazing to get to see our favorite performers at home. Our friends at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, have managed to come up with some really wonderful shows for us to enjoy while we champ at the bit for the chance to see them again in the flesh.
ASC was able to film their season live on the Blackfriars stage with multiple cameras and microphones before restrictions were in place. Given the currently available rep, I went for Much Ado About Nothing first, because—face it, we could all use a good laugh. And a good one it is, folks—an absolute romp in the ASC’s inimitable style, with the added pleasure that the show was a true ensemble effort, done for all of us who couldn’t join them in person. A true “opposites attract” love story combined with a cautionary tale of jealousy, the play has the balance of pathos and hard laughs that is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s best work. And though there is no audience present, ASC’s actors are very successful at re-creating the dynamism of their truly original stage show.
This ASC season, entitled The Actor’s Renaissance, is unique. For each production, a cast of seasoned professionals directs each other. Knowing the space—and having developed a tremendous rapport with their audiences over the years—Blackfriars TV nails the experience of Shakespeare live at the Blackfriars Playhouse, without making any concessions to the constraints of the flatscreen. Actors make eye contact and conspire with the at-home audience, as they would if we were in the theater, making it all the more rich and personal an experience.
Set in a vaguely southern, somewhat sleepy antebellum mansion (banjos feature prominently in the show’s musical interludes), the space is constantly pulsing with action. Scarcely has a parting line from one scene been delivered than the next scene charges in full bore. Leading the cast is the phenomenal Jessika D. Williams as Benedict, who has some of the most ridiculously misogynistic lines ever conceived. Her swagger, insouciance, and deadpan delivery make her turn as Shakespeare’s great (temporary) bachelor truly memorable. With a casually borne six-pack in hand (which Benedict makes quick work of as the action unfolds, of course), Williams savors the verbal invective, with line deliveries so perfect, they will be forever in my memory lock’d.
David Anthony Lewis does a fine turn as the affable, good-hearted Leonato, a character who can’t dance to save his life—but who will nevertheless cut loose when the mood strikes him. As his daughter Hero, Constance Swain steals hearts and sympathy. Her match with the hot-headed Claudio (the nicely volatile K. P. Powell) has some twists and turns, but Swain manages them all quite well—when she’s not giving Lizzo a run for her money during the intermission.
There are excellent turns all around here. Newcomer Meg Rodgers navigates Beatrice (Benedict’s beloved adversary) quite nicely, and Zoe Speas thoroughly enjoys her chance to play the evil Don John—when not also trying her hand as Sexton. Another devil/angel combo, deliciously delivered, is Brandon Carter’s Borachio (who plots against Hero and Claudio) coupled with his Priest, who can raise the rafters with praise. There is also plenty of room for silliness and godawful puns. Benedict’s request for a “-ook,” the word muffled by the cigarette in his mouth, results in a series of priceless sight gags, as the hapless Benjamin Reed (Boy) comes in with precisely the wrong thing, time after time.
Blackfriars is at its hilarious best here, and the show is complete with pre-show and intermission songs, topical and in the spirit of the show, as expected. There’s also a nice shout-out to those of us who have to watch from home. I’ll put it this way: you’ve got the time, so Blackfriars TV is the place to be online for the foreseeable future.
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.
Much Ado About Nothing is a part of ASC’s Actor’s Renaissance Season online, in repertory with Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, A King and No King, and Midsummer 90. The company is also streaming their production of The Grapes of Wrath. To view these online offerings, go to the Blackfriars TV home page, scroll down, and pick your play. You’ll be invited to pay for a ticket, which comes in the form of a password emailed to your inbox, so you can watch whenever it’s convenient.
The American Shakespeare Center is Shakespeare’s American Home—a beacon for all to feel more alive through the experience of Shakespeare, changing lives one encounter at a time. They illuminate the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, classic and new, refreshing the individual, fostering civil discourse, and creating community in the Blackfriars Playhouse and beyond.
Tax-deductible contributions can be made on the ASC website.