'Much Ado' About D.C.'s Modern-Day Culture

By Alex Baldinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

Washington is nearly half a world away from the Italian city of Messina, where Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" takes place. But in a new adaptation of the Bard's romantic comedy, Leonato's court is coming to the nation's capital.

The play, which opens Wednesday at Folger Theatre, is a homecoming for director Timothy Douglas, who made his professional directorial debut at the Folger in 1995 with Shakespeare's "Richard III." To mark the occasion, Douglas has created a Washington-specific adaptation of Shakespeare's play inspired by the annual D.C. Caribbean Carnival.

"I couldn't figure out how to make it work. And then I just happened to hear about the D.C. Caribbean [Carnival], I saw a poster or something for the annual festival, and I thought, 'Well, this is divine providence. This is exactly what it wants to be,' " Douglas says.

The festivities and nuptials throughout "Much Ado" -- principally, a masquerade ball thrown by Messina's governor, Leonato, for returning war heroes Don Pedro, Benedick and Claudio -- serve as a convenient parallel for Douglas's adaptation, which involves the preparation of a wedding-themed float for the annual Caribbean carnival's parade through Northwest Washington.

"Once we started getting into specifics, it just kept falling into place, so I didn't have to bend Shakespeare to my world, and I would never do that anyway," Douglas says. "Anything that wasn't illuminating Shakespeare's story, I would cut. So far I haven't had to."

The new setting is a Tony Cisek-designed alleyway along the H Street corridor. Shakespeare purists will be comforted by the fact that Douglas has left the original Elizabethan dialogue unchanged. The actors do, however, speak with a Caribbean inflection, reflecting the linguistic rhythms of some of Douglas's relatives. That, he says, will extract subtleties and double meanings from Shakespeare that often go unnoticed.

"People who are learning English as a second language are so precise with it that we tend to get more meaning out of it than lazy American speaking," Douglas says. "I started thinking about the rhythm of the English that's spoken in the Caribbean and how that rhythm fits right into Shakespeare's language and illuminates the language itself."

Applying Shakespeare's text to an unusual setting has allowed Douglas to explore how different cultures respond to adversity. For example, a scene in which Hero, Claudio's bride-to-be, is accused of being a prostitute often focuses more on the male characters' disgust rather than on the emotional violence that befalls the wrongly accused Hero.

"I tried to imagine if I were at a wedding, what would that be like? And specifically, in this production, a black wedding if that kind of event happened? I didn't want to make light of it," Douglas says. "It was very important that we go there, and the way we're going to be led is by paying particular attention to how the women are responding. A lot of women potentially get thrown under the bus along the way, so in this production they are pulled from under the bus before we move on."

With jarring wedding-day accusations, a faked death and tumultuous tiffs between Shakespeare's couples, "Much Ado" at times feels more like an episode of "Jon & Kate Plus 8" than a 16th-century play.

Shakespeare's work "always gets better with age. . . . No matter what we go through, his language, his given circumstances can support it," Douglas says. "No matter how far we get, even if America becomes a utopic society, there will still be more that Shakespeare has to teach us."

Much Ado About Nothing Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu. Wednesday-Nov. 29. $30-$60.

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