American Shakespeare Center’s 35th season continues with a delightful rendition of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Located in downtown Staunton, Virginia, about two hours southwest of the District, the American Shakespeare Center since 1988 has had a vision of being “Shakespeare’s American home.” Its Blackfriars Playhouse is designed as a two-level stage with audience box seats reminiscent of Richard Burbage’s Blackfriars Theatre in London. A talented group of actors has been cast for all three of the company’s fall shows — Much Ado About Nothing (playing now through November 19), Hamlet (in rep from September 29 to November 18), and Coriolanus (in rep from October 26 to November 18) — and they simultaneously rehearse and perform these shows right after one another, with Much Ado the first out of the gate.
Prior to showtime, actors doubling as musicians and singers engage the crowd by singing a variety of popular rock and pop tunes led by Aidan O’Reilly (Friar Francis) on piano, Nicolas Eric Sanchez (Benedick) on drums, and vocals provided by Meg Rodgers (Hero), Jess Kadish (Don Pedro of Aragon), Alexis Baigue (Margaret, George Seacoal), Corrie Green (Beatrice), Brandon Carter (Claudio), and the rest of the cast. Special commendation is to be given to Baigue for nailing the spirit and intonation of Fred Schneider during an audience-rousing performance of the B-52’s “Love Shack.”
The play opens with Don Pedro of Aragon (Jess Kadish) and his troops arriving in Messina after a victory on the battlefield and being greeted by the governor, Leonato (Angela Iannone). Count Claudio (Brandon Carter), friend of Don Pedro, has his eyes set on wedding the beautiful Hero, daughter of their host, Leonato. Don Pedro’s bastard brother Don John (Gabriela Castillo-Miranda) has his own axe to grind and plots to discredit Hero as unfaithful, destroying any future marriage prospects.
The outgoing and outspoken Benedick, played with wonderful panache by Nicolas Eric Sanchez, has also returned from battle with his best friend Claudio and vows never to marry. He especially would never marry the equally feisty Beatrice (Corrie Green), cousin and friend of Hero. Both Beatrice and Benedick can’t stand to be in each other’s company, which of course means their companions will conspire to thrust them together. Green and Sanchez have fantastic chemistry, evoking the classic “will they or won’t they” love/hate relationships that audiences enjoy. Green’s outspokenness as a woman who wants to determine her own agency and not have it thrust upon her is enjoyed by theatergoers.
Perhaps due to the company’s mission of bringing Shakespeare into the hearts and minds of all, much of the staging is more akin to the madcap farces of Neil Simon. The self-directed performers’ utilization of physical slapstick plays a heavy role in helping the American crowd better understand the Shakespearean language. Not a single Shakespearean dirty joke is overlooked. One particularly effective scene occurs when the royal court is pretending not to notice Benedick eavesdropping on them discussing Beatrice’s interest in Benedick. Sanchez frantically hides behind pillars, somersaults between them, and eventually hides among some onstage audience members. The parallel scene where Beatrice is overhearing how Benedick pines for her was staged to a similar comedic effect, with Green as Beatrice roaming through the audience dodging and weaving between audience members.
Another effective over-the-top comedic scene occurs when the local watchmen are questioning the players who assisted in besmirching Hero’s reputation. The scene played like one out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with daft watchmen and a zealous but dimwitted lead constable, Dogberry (Philip Orazio). Other standout performers include Alexis Baigue as both Margaret and George Seacoal. A male-presenting actor playing Margaret is a historically accurate casting of Shakespeare’s staging with Baigue bringing hysterics and nuance in all his actions.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, albeit with a very serious interlude in the middle dealing with the aftermath of Hero’s wrongful accusation of infidelity. The American Shakespeare Center has found an excellent balance of interpreting the original written word while staging and adapting for a modern American audience.
Running Time: Two hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Much Ado About Nothing plays through November 19, 2023, presented by American Shakespeare Center at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA. For tickets ($33–$61), call the box office at (540) 851-3400, or purchase them online.
Credits for Much Ado About Nothing are in ASC’s digital program for fall 2023, which is online here.
COVID Safety: American Shakespeare Center strongly encourages patrons to mask when possible. ASC’s complete COVID-19 Safety Visitor’s Guide is here.
Brandon Carter is charting the future of Shakespeare in Virginia (interview by Andrew Walker White, August 16, 2023)
‘Hamlet,’ ‘Coriolanus,’ and ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ to cap American Shakespeare Center’s 35th season (news story, July 31, 2023)