¶ There is a vibrant tradition of performing William Shakespeare’s playtexts cross-, multi-, and trans-culturally. Such productions help us think through our own positions of privilege and reflect on the paradox of globalization—that to learn about other countries and cultures seems to always come with the threat of violence. For post-colonial writers, Gabriel García Márquez called this paradox the “crux of Solitude”: “poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.” A play interested in Shakespeare’s text as a shared vocabulary, and then putting that in conversation with other shared cultural vocabularies, Bag & Baggage’s world premiere of “Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun)” is stunning.
A mask tells us more than a face.
¶ There is something completely delicious about Pacific University’s production of Much Ado About Nothing up, this weekend only, at the Tom Miles Theatre in Forest Grove, Oregon. No doubt it helps that some of my students are in the show, and that I have been a long-time fan of director Austin Tichenor’s The Reduced Shakespeare Company. But I suspect it is more than that. The conceit, setting William Shakespeare’s play at a 1950s homecoming dance after a major football victory, is one of those rare examples of “Shakespeare made fit”—where the thematic cornerstones of the play square neatly with the cultural concerns of a new place and time.
¶ For example, the high school setting neatly contains the activity and provides a justification for our equivalent of a masque. The camaraderie shared by Don Pedro (Trevor Harter), Claudio (Matt Gauss), and Benedict (Josh Hauser) is made overt by their team mentality. The dance also gives occasion for the song, “Sign No More,” which is transformed here into a student band’s rock tune led by Pedro—smacking of something between Jack Black and John Belushi. With the rest of the cast dancing and ringing the band, the essential sense of community—that these relationships go way back—is made clear. My favorite twist was re-conceiving Constable Dogberry as a Vice Principle (Mari Cobb); it is the best correlation I can think of to link the policing mechanism necessary to discover the culprits but also maintain the absurdity of a disciplinarian without actual power. The gender-flip, to have the part played by a woman as a woman, makes the line “as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina” have actual meaning rather a confusion we ignore. Likewise, as Seacoal, Alexis Zmuda kills with comedic timing: set at a typewriter VP Dogberry asks that she write the confession. Zmuda takes her time plodding in each letter. When the statements get longer, her desperation increases and humor ensues.
¶ There were other rich re-gendering of characters, the most productive of which was having Donna John (Jenna Cady) and Borachia (Haley McKinnon) played by and as women. For the former, Cady was costumed in a punk-goth black skirt trimmed with leather, tights, and crunchy Doc Martin’s. The tension between Donna John and Don Pedro as siblings is not an issue of bastardy, as in the source script, but here is one of gendered imbalance. Presumably, Donna John is in the same place as Hero: bored by waiting for a husband to whom to transfer her inheritance. It’s a version of Don John whose motives I can piece together and with whom I can sympathize. Likewise, Borachia complicates the perceived infidelity of hero. Her relationship with Margaret is pursued openly at the dance, with disapproving looks from other characters. She maintains female gender pronouns, but her tailored jacket, cap, and leather pant makes it easy to imagine that it is a man in the silhouette she makes with Margaret to trick Claudio. In a compelling reversal from the original script, it is not Margaret in one of Hero’s dresses that tricks the men, but rather Borachia in man’s attire.
¶ The production is full of such moments: small changes both informed by the spirit of Shakespeare’s text but find new ways to make that spirit clear to its 2017 playgoers. One of the big challenges in the play, for me, is what to do with Hero so easily taking Claudio back after his violence and slander. Wittington, as Hero, makes a smart choice to grab Claudio by the face and exert a little threat of her own, carving out a moment of agency otherwise not made available by the text. Another crucial moment (producing the greatest amount of laughter) was the approach to the famous Arbour Scene, wherein Benedict overhears his fellow footballers discuss Beatrice’s ostensible love for him. Rather than a garden, he is shoved and slammed over and over again into lockers. Once the crew leaves, a far door opens to reveal a battered Benedict—but it is unclear whether he has been struck dumb by love or lockers.
¶ Ultimately, all these smart evolutions and ensemble efforts are for nought if your Bea and Ben aren’t ready to duke it out in this battle of the sexes. Tall and expressive, both Elise Dixon and Josh Hauser tower over the rest of the cast, buoyed by the speed of their wit and compelling execution of their stichomythia. Hauser, with his extensive choral background, played with dynamics and elocution throughout, but especially in his soliloquies. It is a tough balance to speak directly to your watchers while conveying the sense that you are actively working through a problem. Soliloquies are about interiority, after all: there is no one onstage but you, talking to yourself. Dixon found that sweet spot between sardonic and shrill, cultivating a Beatrice with whom we sympathize and yet always invite to the party—never alienated by her rapier wit. In a world where we grapple with “resting Bitch face,” cat calling, and “binders full of women,” watching this Beatrice negotiate male expectations while refusing to be inauthentic to herself can only and always be a breath of fresh air.