Don't Miss This WWII Adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Shakespeare's famed comedy gets a 20th century facelift at Main Street Theater.

By Doni Wilson January 3, 2017

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Main Street Theater in Rice Village puts a new spin on Shakespeare’s acclaimed comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, with contemporary costumes and context. Set during World War II, the adaptation takes place at a radio show in an English bunker by nurses, servicemen and volunteers as they entertain allied troops.

Similar to the original 1598 play, the comedy is a battle of wills and wits, particularly between Beatrice and Benedick, both of whom claim they will never fall in love or marry. The play is a perfect choice for a lighthearted rendition of the Bard's classic comedy. The 1940s music is romantic and entertaining, lending a wistfulness that dovetails well with the romance between the two stubborn lovers. Their “merry war” is merry indeed.

Just as previous centuries have taken liberties with Shakespeare’s works, the visiting Prague Shakespeare Company artist director Guy Roberts, who also plays Benedick, presents an adaptation that is full of surprises. Most notably, a more comedic rendition of the melodramatic rejection of Hero by the soldier Claudio. Usually, this plot point is tricky to dramatize because it is such a cruel and unjust dismissal that doesn’t sit easily next to the lighthearted war of the sexes between witty Beatrice and stubborn Benedick.

But in this production, the radio show setting allows the actors to present this as a part of the entertainment for the troops, and by extension, the audience. This was a delightful innovation, allowing the play to be pure comedy instead of a hybrid dramedy. Presented by the PSC as part of their continuing partnership with Main Street Theater, it was refreshing to see such an original rendering of a familiar play. 

Since this production is spun around a radio show, the audience gets a behind-the-microphone view of what goes on during a radio production in the '40s, including the sound effects that the actors produce, the music played over the airwaves and the entertaining commercials, including ads for Lucky Strike and Chesterfield cigarettes. There's even an alarming air raid to remind audiences of the hardships and sacrifices of wartime, making more poignant the enterprise of the volunteers who work hard to entertain those serving their country.

I loved the minimalist set and the hanging microphones, the energetic use of lighting and sound and the gender-switching for many of the roles—a witty reminder that even in Shakespeare’s day female roles were played by men. 

This is a strong, international cast, and I marveled at the credentials of the players. Most impressive was director and lead actor Roberts, who is not only PSC's artistic director, but also a native Houstonian. As Benedick, he completely understood how to make Shakespeare accessible to contemporary audiences. His sense of timing is perfect, allowing the audience to savor Shakespeare’s language in a way that allows viewers to catch the full meaning and humor of the lines. His physical movements animated the words in a way that even the uninitiated could easily follow. This is critical—it only takes one poor Shakespeare experience to make audiences give up on him forever. Performances like Roberts' are an important cultural service that make Shakespeare understandable and entertaining, insuring that audiences are not only having a good time, but appreciating why the Bard has stood the test of time.

After the performance, I was not surprised to read how many awards Roberts has received for directing and acting in Shakespearian works, including 16 nominations for B. Iden Payne Awards. Houston is fortunate to have such an expert in our midst in such an intimate theater. Expressive and engaging, both Roberts and Philip Lehl from 4th Wall Theatre Company's performance late last year have delivered unique but excellent versions of Benedick to Houston audiences in the last year. Lucky us.

How fitting to close 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, and start off 2017 on such a high note. Benedick says, “In a false world there is no true vow,” but the truth of such insight is easier to swallow when taken at the theater in a new and interesting way. Main Street Theater has provided a wonderful way for Houstonians to enjoy a new version of an old play. “The skirmish of wit” between Beatrice and Benedick is a favorite, but how much better to see it in a new and clever light, right at the beginning of a brand-new year.

Much Ado About Nothing 

Thru Jan 15. From $36. 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706.

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