By Gina Olson
On Jan. 19, actors from the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) came to Roanoke College to present the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”
The artistic performance was not nothing. Based in Staunton, VA, the ASC goes on tours to educate people about acting and William Shakespeare. The group has constructed a replica of the Blackfriars Playhouse in which they act when not touring. For more information about this group, please visit the ASC website, americanshakespearecenter.com.
In this play by Shakespeare, a Naval Commander named Don Pedro returns victorious with his troops to see Leonato, the governor of Messina. Quickly, the plot introduces two romantic possibilities, Leonato’s niece, Beatrice, and his daughter, Hero. Don Pedro’s friend Benedict fights verbally with Beatrice. Both a bit headstrong, the two seem to have no interest in love or the bondage of marriage, but seem to enjoy their verbal dueling. Meanwhile, Claudio, a friend of Don Pedro, loves Hero. As the play unwinds (without spoiling the plot), the bastard brother of Don Pedro, Don John, creates entanglements. Do Benedict and Beatrice love each other? Is Hero unfaithful? Very much confused, the characters create their own “ado” until everyone learns the truth and the play ends positively.
Regardless of the audience’s previous exposure to acting or Shakespeare, ASC provided points of interest for everyone. Before the show began, the actors performed a pre-show with songs, playing instruments such as trumpets, banjos, and a bass. While playing the bass, Susie Parr, who later played Hero, sang and spun the instrument in a full circle. As the audience walked into Olin Theatre, they were invited to join actors on the stage.
By the end of pre-show, the audience had a sense of the style. Actors made their quick entrances through three curtains towards the back of the stage. With minimal sets, the ASC actors created their own environment, singing songs from the 1970s, such as “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash and “Ladies Night” by Kool and The Gang, and interacting with audience members on the stage. Those sitting on stage were sung to, confided in, and even lifted out of their seats and placed on the lap of the actor to create a hiding place for that actor.
As an introduction to the play, Josh Innerst, who later played Don Pedro, explained that some actors would play different roles throughout the performance. “Don’t worry. They’re supposed to be doing that,” he assured the audience, generating some laughter. He also explained that the theatre lights would remain on during the show to simulate sun shining into the open theatre just as it would’ve during Shakespeare’s time.
When the pre-show and introduction finished, the play moved in a continuous flow of humor. Actors spoke to the audience (but within the script) and their interactions with each other seemed particularly believable, especially between Stephanie Holladay Earl (Beatrice) and Patrick Earl (Benedick). All actors put passion into their roles, and the “chemistry” people often refer to, was clearly present between actors and actors, as well as the audience. The event gave everyone who attended an opportunity to take a break from everyday stress and sadness and enjoy high quality comedy.