Love is a Football Field: Pacific University’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

A mask tells us more than a face.
—Oscar Wilde

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.

Vice Principle Dogberry (Mari Cobb) sets her troupe of teachers (from left: Brennan Staffieri, Alexis Zmuda, Jojo Miller) to guard the halls during the school dance.

¶ 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.

Donna John (Jenna Cady) gives Conrade (Siddharth Raj) the what-for.

¶ 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.

Dean Leonata (Paige Kester), Claudio (Matt Gauss), and Don Pedro (Trevor Harter) plant the see of love in Benedict’s (Josh Hauser) ear.

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.

Beatrice (Elise Dixon) and Benedict (Josh Hauser) reveal more than they might want despite being masked.

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.


  • Pacific University‘s production of Much Ado About Nothing plays in the Tom Miles Theatre on the Forest Grove campus 16 – 19 March 2017.
  • Admission is $8 general; $5 students, faculty, staff, alumni; and are available at the door or online here.
Director Austin Tichernor captures an #OscarSelfie with cast and crew of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

WYW’s “Complete Works” a faithful abridgment

[Blackout. A pretentious, heavy-metal version of ‘Greensleeves’ crashes through the sound system. At its conclusion, lights come up to reveal JESS, in Shakespearean attire and high-top sneakers. JESS consults the book, realizes it’s upside down, turns it over, flips a page, and reads.]

 

 

 

Before the weekend is up I wanted to say a few works about the What You Will (WYW) Shakespeare Company’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), now playing at the University Place Christian Church on the corner of Wright and Springfield in Urbana, Illinois. Part of the fun of seeing these entirely student-run productions is the creativity they bring to the stagings, and especially how that creativity gets meted out interpreting these plays on a very limited budget. Circumscribed by a collegiate audience and atmosphere, one of my favorite offerings has been their version of As You Like It, which openly embraced campus life to give the play exigency. But the now ubiquitous Complete Works (Abridged) is another matter altogether. With a script that already plays fast and loose with the status of Shakespeare in popular culture, already has the tongue-in-cheek built in, I wondered how the troupe would find ways to bring their style to bear.

While the group is usually very smart about capitalizing cleverly on costume choices and doubling, making the most of careful selection, here they stuck to the script. As suggested by the quoted stage directions above, the group kept things simple and plastic: high-tops, hoodies, and quasi-Ren faire blouses and vests. In this way the students’ abilities as actors were underscored, not allowed to hide behind costume and mise-en-scene. Most notable were veterans Matthew James Marquez and Megan Scharlau. Marquez capitalized on his height and expressive features to toy with expectations of cross-dressing in the period, as well as the levels of disgust different cultures are willing to tolerate in the name of humor. (This is to say much vomiting was had.) Sharlau, on the other hand, has a knack for comedic timing, which productively poked at the motivational holes behind leading tragic characters like Hamlet. (She seemed to revel most in the Seussian Green Eggs and Ham references.) Also notable were Kevin Gomez as an expression of our too-willing dependence on the Internet, and Orion Lovell making sure the fourth wall never remained up for long.

The other thing about the text of this particular play that makes it well-suited for students are the moments in it aimed at audience participation. The final Ophelia-psychology scene is perhaps most famous (see what I mean below) for inculcating the audience, but there are many other moments in the play that provide the actors similar opportunities. At the Friday opening performance there were many gestures to this, but the performers primarily targeted friends or members of the troupe, including using at least one plant for the “Get Thee To A Nunnery” scene. While of course putting on a play is challenge enough, with so many veterans in the cast I hoped the group would try to really tackle getting strangers in on their game. It is my hope that WYW’s spring productions take up this particular challenge as they re-envision these plays. Otherwise, the performance was all fun, with humour well delivered all the while tackling real questions of canon and cultural prestige in the process.


  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company‘s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) plays at the University Place Christian Church 14-15 November at 8:00pm.