Editors' pick

Much Ado About Nothing

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Editorial Review

Review

By Nelson Pressley

Monday, Sep 12, 2011

The boys are back from the wars in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing," but they're being played by women in Taffety Punk Theatre Company's amusing but unbalanced all-
female production.

The Riot Grrrls - the arm of the Taffety Punks that annually unleashes a cast of women on Shakespeare - aren't out to blur gender within the story. They just want to play both roles. And in the small Southern barroom setting devised by director Eleanor Holdridge and designer Jessica Moretti, they largely succeed. The "guys" are the ones with their hair slicked back and pulled into tight ponytails, while the gals wear sundresses and get to let their tresses down.

"Much Ado" is the comedy featuring the sparring lovebirds Beatrice and Benedick, who swear till they're blue in the face how annoyed they are with one another. (It's the mark of true love.) Tonya Beckman Ross is a natural-born Beatrice, merrily tossing off sarcastic barbs and glowing with good spirits, even as she displays a touch of steel in her spine.

Kimberly Gilbert's Benedick, though, is something new. Gilbert slows the pace of Benedick's banter, ambling through the soliloquies and repartee. Each of Benedick's bright revelations seems to take him by surprise; Gilbert's eyes grow wide and the lines come out sounding like the Shakespearean equivalent of "Golly!" It's very funny.

It's also a consequence of situating this "Much Ado" below the MasonDixon line at a "Welcome Home, Troops" moment. Sarah Kendrick's costumes feature camouflage uniforms for the soldiers, and two American flags are draped amid the beer signs and hubcaps on the walls of the intimate Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. The posters inform us that we're in Patsy Cline-Johnny Cash country, and Kathy Cashel sings ballads and strums banjo and guitar between scenes.

So there's a lot of drawlin' goin' on, with the least of it coming from Ross and Gilbert.

Yet Holdridge doesn't seem to want to lampoon either men or the South, so a lot of the show is performed in a low-key twang (with the exception being Kimberly Schraf's turn as the malaprop-spouting constable Dogberry, where the accent is in overdrive). The performers soft-pedal the characters, but the underplaying hurts the high melodrama of the plot, which eventually has to do with sabotaging the wedding between Claudio (Esther Williamson) and Hero (Betsy Rosen) by framing sweet Hero as a tramp.

Don John, the chief saboteur, is a confessed villain, but the sneakiness that Tiernan Madorno aims for can come off as sleepiness. And while Jessica Lefkow's amiability as Leonato (Hero's father) is appealing, she lacks the hot fury to drive the crisis when Leonato curses his daughter at the altar.

So the production boils down, as "Much Ado" often does, to the snappiness of Beatrice and Benedick. Ross is wonderfully breezy, and when Gilbert sees that Benedick has some growing to do, she straightens him up smartly. They are the muscle in this Riot Grrrls exercise.

Backstage: 'Much Ado'

By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011

"It's very specifically about men and women's roles: What can men do? How do men right their honor? Do women have an avenue to right when they've been wronged?"

Eleanor Holdridge was speaking of the nature of "Much Ado About Nothing," the Shakespeare play she is directing for the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, opening Friday at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. But she could easily have been talking about the nature of this particular performance; hers will be a Riot Grrrl production with an all-female cast.

The Taffety Punk Theatre Company has staged three previous Riot Grrrl productions of all-female Shakespeare. The first, "Romeo and Juliet," was a response to the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all-male production in 2008 of the Capulet-Montague tragedy.

According to Lise Bruneau, a founding Taffety Punk member and director of the first three Riot Grrrl productions, it was "a blatant throw-down. . . . Our impulse came from resisting the current fascination with an all-male cast. It was happening all the time. . . . It's like, 'You guys, this is old. It's not exciting anymore.' "

A fiesty thread runs through all of Taffety Punk. Even the name of the company is an irreverent theater reference: "Taffety punk" is Shakespearean slang for a well-dressed prostitute.

Bruneau insists there is a need to provide modern actresses with the opportunity to play the iconic roles in Shakespeare, whether or not they were initially intended for women.

"Just give us a crack at those parts," she said. "Being a classically trained actress who is fully accredited in stage combat, to be sitting on the sidelines waiting for your one line . . . totally unused. We'll get our occasional beautiful, fabulous role - our Cleopatra, our Juliet. But so much of the time we're just sitting on all these skills."

Holdridge, who has directed numerous Shakespeare productions, has never worked with an all-male or all-female cast before.

"As a director and an actor, it's very empowering," she said. "It's our world, and we get to create it. We're not being handed our world by the dominant gender."

Holdridge's interpretation of the text is influenced by everything from the war in Afghanistan to the TV series "Justified." Despite the dated language of "Much Ado," Holdridge said, "this is absolutely a play for today. There are people who go to war and people who don't. . . . How do you come back from something like that and then get married, or get along with people who don't have the same history of stress and violence that you do?"

Although "Much Ado" is a comedy, Holdridge hopes the play is as thought-provoking as it is laugh-inducing. "I think that for a comedy to work, there's got to be some serious issues going on."