MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Center Theater

ML Roberts and Jonelle Jordan in Much
Ado About Nothing. Photo by John Ulman.

Every once in a while the stars will align, and magic will happen. Magic is exactly what happened on stage last night as Seattle Shakespeare presented MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. From director to cast to staging, everything worked together in perfect unison to not only tell this age old story, but to elevate it. The good folks at Seattle Shakespeare have put together a very special production that reminds us of the magic of theater and how it can bring us together.

The story opens with the family of Leonato enjoying the leisure activities which the landed wealthy can enjoy which is this modernized version includes polaroid family portraits, rollerskating, and badminton. The family welcomes Don Pedro and his brother Don John and their entourage, which includes Claudio and Benedick, for an extended visit. Claudio immediately falls for the governor’s daughter, Hero, and Don Pedro sets out to help make the match. Meanwhile Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, spends his time sparring with Hero’s cousin, Beatrice. They both have denounced the notion of romance, yet their encounters send sparks flying as they exchange barbs. Don Pedro sees a potential match between the two and enlists others to trick them into believing each has fallen for the other. Don John hears of the plans and is overwhelmed with jealousy and bitterness. He hatches his own plan to ruin everyone else’s happiness. Constable Dogberry and the night watch catch Don Johnson’s men and are able to save the day, but not before poor Hero has been publicly shamed by a false accusation. All the loose ends are tied up in a happy double wedding.

The story is carried on the capable shoulders of a solid cast from top to bottom. Director Allison Narver’s biggest achievement in this show is providing a clear vision and goal, and it was evident that everyone was working with the same intention. With a show that most have seen numerous times, it is rare to find someone who truly brings a new light and truth to a character, but that is exactly what Jonelle Jordan brought to her portrayal of Beatrice. Her manipulation of the lines with fresh pacing, pauses, and rhythms was brilliant. Her simple separation of the word, “what” after Benedick’s profession of love slayed me.

She will now be my benchmark for Beatrice, as this production will be for MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Jordan’s quick wit was beautifully matched by ML Roberts portrayal of Benedick. At times his protestations and judgements of others reminded me of Fitzwilliam Darcy. He brought a charm and vulnerability to Benedick where there is usually only pride. His attempt to compose a sonnet for Beatrice was such an endearing moment. The chemistry between the two was nothing short of electric.

The other standout performance of the night was Sarah Harlett as Dogberry. Her physicality added another layer to what was already a nuanced performance. Her earnestness made Dogberry, who can come off as a caricature, fully human. The dead pan stares and insistence on being seen gave the other actors so much to respond to. Good actors make their character better, and great actors make everyone better. And that’s exactly what Harlett did.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great work of Vahishta Vafadari as Ursula. In a scene with Margaret (Sharon Barto Gouran), Ursula has a little mishap with a chair. Without missing a beat, she used the moment to add humor and yet continue the intention of the scene. She followed this up with a nasty scowl toward the offending chair as it was ushered off stage during the scene change. It was such a delightful moment that I hope they find a way to keep it.

The production team for MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING hit it out of the park as well. The addition of music by Jose “Juicy” Gonzales was refreshing and fun. It helped cement the production in its modern take. Scenic Designer Matthew Smucker created a space that was visually appealing and served every different purpose as needed. Lighting Design by Andrew D. Smith enhanced the scenic design by transforming the spaces with color and light to give variation to a set that never changed. Smucker’s sets included strings of lanterns across the stage and hung in a tree.

The set was used by director and cast to help tell the story as Bendick and Beatrice hid behind columns and walls to hear the trap being laid for them. At one point Benedick takes two lanterns from the tree and pretends to be part of the tree. Later, still holding these lanterns, he uses them for a well placed anatomy joke. I don’t know if the lanterns were incorporated so that the joke could happen or if the joke evolved from using the space. But either way, it was a brilliant connection between set and story and character and perfectly fit the moment and the Bard’s humor. Finally, with props at a minimum, Robin Macartney still managed to make a big impact with well placed and well chosen props that added both a strong visual statement and gave added interaction opportunities for the cast to infuse humor.

Seeing a Shakespearan play can often require a lot of effort from the audience. This production only asks that you check your worries at the door and allow yourself to delight in the wit and absurdity of the story. While the story still contains the usual misogyny of Shakespeare’s time, the actors do shine a fresh light on it. Leonato’s complete lack of faith in his daughter and his willingness to disown her are met with looks of shock and outrage. Another connection to original productions was the use of gender bending in the cast.

With strong performances from the cast and smart selections by costumer Natalie Shih, these roles blended seamlessly with the story. In fact, they only merit mentioning for their success in hopes that we see more it across all types of productions and theaters. The only negative part of the entire evening with this brilliant group of people was seeing the number of empty seats in the house. As we continue to move back to normal levels of activity and learn to live in a covid world, I hope that more people will choose live theater and choose it more often. We nearly lost so many good things when the world shut down, and theater may very well be one of the things that can help bring us back and help us heal. Go see live theater. Go see this show. Take a friend. Then do it again. This show was really Much Ado About Everything.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING by Seattle Shakespeare is playing now through May 22nd at Center Theater. For tickets or more information, visit seattleshakespeare.org.

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