On the Spot: Ethan McSweeny

December 8, 2011

“Much Ado About Nothing” is a tale of soldiers at ease — military men stuck on an island outpost with gorgeous young women — so it makes sense that things get a little steamy. Especially when set in a tropical Cuban paradise, as is the Shakespeare Theatre’s new production. We asked D.C.-based director Ethan McSweeny what else sets his version apart.

You’ve set this in 1930s Cuba, which was basically a vacation playground for rich Americans. How did you come up with that?
We produced “Much Ado” at my summer theater in Chautauqua, N.Y., four years ago, directed by my co-artistic director, Vivienne Benesch. It was her idea to set the play in Cuba. Vivienne had come up with the idea after seeing a friend’s production set in Argentina. The Romanian theater director Liviu Ciulei once said that originality is just a sign of not enough research.

What do you think he meant?
That the quest for true originality is not what the job of theater is. The quest is for rightness, moment to moment, and for truth. It’s hubris if you think you’re going to do something that no one has ever done.

Especially with Shakespeare.
We have a joke here right now that every time I come up with a really good idea, I look in the footnotes of the Arden Shakespeare and they’ve already written about it.

What was it about Cuba in the ’30s that you thought worked so well in this context?
I don’t know if Shakespeare had this concept of Italians being hot and sexy, but you kind of need a hot, sexy place for this play to happen. You need a place and time with a real, embedded sense of machismo. But it’s important to remember that it’s a setting, not a concept. Hopefully, on some level, you’re going to forget about the setting.

Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW; through Jan. 1, $20-$105; 202-547-1122. (Gallery Place)
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