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Much Ado About Nothing

Every once in a while, someone puts together a definitive version of one of the Bard's masterpieces, and in director Jim Helsinger's Much Ado About Nothing we experience such a gem.

The lynchpin appears to be Helsinger's desire to firmly emphasize the comedic elements and to downplay the villainy, which is comprised of the revenge of Don Pedro's (Geoffrey Kent) illegitimate brother, Don John (Benaiah Anderson), who stages a counterfeit assignation, leading Claudio (Casey Andree) to accuse Hero (Rachel Turner) of unfaithfulness.

Vanessa Morosco as Beatrice and Peter Simon Hilton as Benedick
Vanessa Morosco as Beatrice
and Peter Simon Hilton as Benedick
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Helsinger's comedic strategy begins with his division of the action, ending the first act with Beatrice (Vanessa Morosco) musing on the second gulling incident of the play, when she overhears Hero and Ursula's (a playful Martha Harmon Pardee) conversation, a trap in which the women manufacture and discuss Benedick's (Peter Simon Hilton) love for Beatrice.

This interplay was originally written to be performed as the first scene in Act III, or in modern times, when the five acts have been boiled down to two, at the beginning of the second act. However, by ending the first act with the completion of Benedick's and Beatrice's gulling, rather than with only Benedict having been tricked, we go to intermission with the comedic conceit more firmly established. All this enables Don John's damaging ploy in Act II to be more easily subsumed by the strength of the comedy; in particular, Don John (a fierce soldier) is foiled by an incompetent constable, Dogberry (an hilarious send up by Rodney Lizcano), and his ragged band of deputies. Helsinger's success with this approach makes room for the bad guys to be a part of the celebratory dance at the finale. Bravo!

(Left to Right) Casey Andree as Claudio, Rachel Turner as Hero, and Chris Kendall as Leonato
(L to R) Casey Andree as Claudio,
Rachel Turner as Hero,
and Chris Kendall as Leonato
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
In addition to this elevation of the overall comedic tone, the entire ensemble and design team shine bright, beginning with Morosco and Hilton's rapid magnetic swings, repelling each other in one instant, attracting each other in the next, which keeps the tension high and the outcome in doubt, while providing high contrast to the near-tragic aspects of Hero and Claudio's love relationship. Turner and Andree effortlessly navigate a series of heartfelt and heart-rending highs and lows as Don John's rumors cut to the quick. Anderson exudes duplicity in every breath, as the jealous and spiteful plotter.

(Left to right) Geoffrey Kent as Don Pedro and Chris Kendall as Leonato
(L to R) Geoffrey Kent as Don Pedro
and Chris Kendall as Leonato
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Leonato, Governor of Messina (Chris Kendall), as Hero's father, and Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Kent), as Claudio's and Benedick's commander and comrade-in-arms, are the chief facilitators for both romances, one idealistic, one contentious. Kendall's dry wit and gravitas as the magnanimous host and maligned parent, and Kent's joviality and justness, with the help of the equally conniving Friar Francis (an irrepressible Sean Scrutchins), bring high spirits to the various contrivances and conceits along the way.

Bjorn Arvidsson's dulcet tones soar in the play's two ballads. The design work—Caitlin Ayer's idyllic set, Hugh Hanson's lush and handsome costumes, and Shannon McKinney's warm lighting—provide the framework for a stunning spectacle.

(Left to right) Benaiah Anderson as Don John and Sam Hardy as Borachio
(L to R) Benaiah Anderson as Don John
and Sam Hardy as Borachio
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
Many Shakespeare aficionados of all stripes agree that Much Ado About Nothing is one of the playwright's finest comedies, because of the emotional complexity and intertwining of various plots. The principle reason behind this well-woven intrigue is the unique manner in which particular authorial biographical threads are brought together, as well as the apparent serendipity that Helsinger's choice to readjust the acts underscores the playwright's intent of downplaying his own transgressions before Queen and court.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of five plays in the canon driven by male accusations of female infidelity. All of these plots stem from de Vere's real life suspicions, amplified by one of his servants (Rowland Yorke), during his tour of Europe when he was 26, when his wife, Anne Cecil, became pregnant with their first child. In this play, Don John poisons Claudio in much the same way.

(Left to right) Vanessa Morosco as Beatrice and Rachel Turner as Hero
(L to R) Vanessa Morosco as Beatrice
and Rachel Turner as Hero
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
De Vere wrestled with this issue for the next twenty years of his life. After refusing to return home to his wife, de Vere took up with Anne Vavasor, a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and the "dark lady" of the sonnets. Vavasor had two pregnancies during this affair, the first ending in a miscarriage and the second in a child, for which she and de Vere were imprisoned in the Tower. Eventually, the Vavasor clan carried out a vendetta to defend her honor against the House of de Vere, resulting in a series of street battle and two deaths, just as depicted in Romeo and Juliet. De Vere was eventually convinced by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, his former guardian and Anne's father (as well as Elizabeth's chief of state for almost her entire reign), that he (de Vere) was a victim of bed trick. This ploy appears in two plays.

Vavasor gave birth in March, 1581. After serving two and half months in the Tower, de Vere was exiled from court and returned to his wife and the ancestral Castle Hedingham, during which time he wrote this play, as an apology of sorts for his accusations against Anne Cecil and for his behavior with Anne Vavasor. We say an apology of sorts, because there is no mistaking the visceral attraction depicted between him and his muse, as Benedick and Beatrice. In addition, Claudio (as the husband, de Vere), though contrite, never offers much of an apology to Hero (as the wife, Anne Cecil), only "Yet sinn'd I not—but in mistaking," and no one in the play disagrees.

(Left to right) Casey Andree as Claudio and Geoffrey Kent as Don Pedro
(L to R) Casey Andree as Claudio
and Geoffrey Kent as Don Pedro
Photo: Jennifer Koskinen
The challenges faced by Vere and Vavasor are evident in the lines of this play, though the meanings are generally lost on modern audiences and (big surprise) orthodox scholars. For example, at the top of the first scene, Beatrice's first line is: "I pray you, is Signior Montanto (Lord Upward Thrust) returned from the wars or no?" Beatrice is both resentful and concerned. There are various references to a miscarriage, including several mentions of the Labors of Hercules, a penance he undertook for killing his own children.

Later, Beatrice notes that "I am not for him. Therefore, I will even take sixpence ... and lead his apes into hell." (in reference to an old English ballad ["The Maid and the Palmer"] wherein a maid leads an ape into hell by way of atoning for a dead illegitimate child. But they continue to tempt fate, as Beatrice hints she's been inseminated again. Halfway through the play she gets sick and says she's been stuffed. In response to this, an attendant "pricks" Beatrice with a thistle and gives the maid "distilled carduus benedictus," Other than a pun on her lover's name, Renaissance doctors administered carduus to diagnose pregnancy. Beatrice also applies the term "jade's trick" to Benedick's behavior, the same term applied to de Vere, when he tried to flee the country from Vavasor's pregnancy. In addition, when writing verses in Beatrice's honor, Benedick discovers he can "find no other rhyme for lady but baby," while Beatrice says that Benedick once lent his heart to her "And I gave him sue for it. A double heart for his single one."

Even the subplots are rife with autobiographical details. The charges that Dogberry levels against Don John's henchmen are point-for-point responses to the Arundell-Howard libels against de Vere, including Dogberry's confused counting system. Here, de Vere via Dogberry gets the last word, as the malaprop-spouting constable accuses his charges of false report, untruths, slanders, and more.

There are also some other minor details taken from de Vere's travels in Italy; for example, when Claudio gives perfumed gloves to Hero. De Vere purchased perfumed gloves in Florence (monastery of Santa Maria Novella), which he gave to the Queen and others. The masked revelry in the play is based on de Vere's first hand experience of the Venetian Carnival. Also, Margaret mentions a sumptuous gown owned by the Duchess of Milan, a city which was even then a center of haute couture. When he returned to London, de Vere is said to have joked that even "the cobblers' wives of Milan are more richly dressed every working day than the Queen on Christmas Day."

The Sonnets, first edition
The Sonnets, first edition
In all the clerks' rolls in England,
Shakespeare is never hypenated.
It is a literary pen name, one of three
used by Edward de Vere,
the 17th Earl of Oxford.
The play was first performed, as A History of Ariodante and Genevora, which is the source text for Much Ado About Nothing, on Shrove Tuesday (February 12, 1583) for the Queen at Richmond Palace by the Merchant Taylors' Boys, one of her favorite troupes. After successive re-writes, the play was published in 1600 as Much adoe about Nothing. Again, no apology in the title either. Despite all these transgressions, Elizabeth eventually invited de Vere back to court. It's lucky for us that she couldn't do without our #1 writer. On Sunday, June 26, 1586, the Queen "affixed the seal of the Privy Council to a royal warrant for a stunning £1,000 annual salary for de Vere"1 to write the history plays. "Shake-speare" was a great propagandist, not only on his own account, but for the Tudor state, via the stage histories and the pulpit, for which he wrote anonymous homilies.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's presentation of Much Ado About Nothing runs through August 9th. For tickets: 303-492-8008 or coloradoshakes.org.

Bob Bows

Footnotes:
1 Mark Anderson, "Shakespeare" by Another Name, forward by Sir Derek Jacobi, Gotham Books, New York, 2005, p. 210.

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