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Modern ‘Much Ado’ adaptation offers plenty of energy

Photo by Chandler Branzell
Photo by Chandler Branzell

I always get nervous when I hear a group has chosen to put on a “modern” adaptation of a Shakespeare play. Images of Baz Luhrmann’s dizzying use of guns, cars and Hawaiian shirts in his high-octane 1996 adaptation of “Romeo + Juliet” inevitably come to mind.

So when the cast of ORU Theatre Department’s “Mucho Ado About Nothing” emerged in contemporary costuming, with the military men sporting smart black hats, tan uniforms and guns strapped in holsters on their hips, I was apprehensive.

By the end of their lively and earnest performance, however, I found these nerves unfounded.

Thanks be to the Shakespeare gods, this production was not a Baz Luhrmann movie.

And speaking of movies, here’s another it was not: Kenneth Branagh’s acclaimed 1993 “Much Ado” adaption starring Emma Thompson, Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale and Keanu Reeves.

Mention “Much Ado,” and Branagh’s sterling film will be referenced at some point. Let’s be honest. It’s hard not to compare any rendering of Shakespeare’s comedy with this cinematic benchmark.

It’s Emma Thompson. And Denzel. And Don John played by Keanu Reeves, an actor pouting his way through a moody role he was born for.

But do the cast a courtesy and leave the comparisons at the door. The ORU performance was surprising and memorable in its own right.

In play all about tricks and misunderstandings, Benedick, played by a comedic Will Acker, joins the noblemen of Prince Don Pedro in their visit to Messina, Italy.

Here, he encounters the sassy Beatrice and her band of beauties, including the chaste Hero.

With good humor and coy one-liners abounding, romance overtakes both the men and women.

Acker plays Benedick with energy and brashness. His exaggerated movements and spark onstage find life and humor in his impeccable sense of comedic timing.

Aly Reagan’s Beatrice finds a way to hold her own with Acker’s vibrant wordplay, bringing new meaning to some of Shakespeare’s classic lines.

The theatre department showed an interesting mix of veteran and first-time faces in this cast. It was nice to see students like Acker and Danna Leary—who some may remember from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” two years ago—play off the energy of standout freshman.

Yes, this is a nod to you, Slater Ashenhurst, and to your outrageous faces and dedicated whistle blowing.

Equally enjoyable were a magnetic David Anthony as Dogberry and Jessie Morris’s poised rendering of Leonata, an originally male role made modern in the director’s choice of gender swapping.

Morris’s command of the character made the switch seem a natural one to make.

My complaints about “Much Ado” are few.

First, in an attempt for “fast talking” banter, some of the dialogue became breezy and muffled. I found myself straining to hear and discern several monologues spoken too fast even for ears familiar with the play.

Overall, however, most of the cast seemed to have a good grasp of Shakespeare’s language. Their well-timed inflections and aptly chosen words of emphasis garnered plenty of laughs from the audience.

Second, the set display featured a static Grecian style I found rather at odds with this modern “Much Ado” rendering.

While it did offer some key comedic hiding places — both for Benedick and the watchmen — I found the scenery wanting and not nearly as dynamic or visually interesting as some of the department’s other set designs.

Third, the guitar music played in-between scenes bled into the dialogue at times, which I found distracting.

But in general, the music choices only enhanced the play’s modernity. I’m thinking particularly of a character singing a catchy, acoustic rendition of a Shakespeare song featuring the Mumford-esque line “Sigh No More.”

And while some may question choices like ending the performance with a Coldplay song, none can doubt the actors’ enthusiasm throughout “Much Ado.”

The cast’s zest lasted until the very end. As they danced wildly on a darkening stage, the students’ energy certainly made the anachronistic ride worthwhile.

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