By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Shakespeare was used to seeing men play women on stage — it was the legal way to operate a theater in his time. But I bet he never dreamed of anything like the gender-bending Much Ado About Nothing that Mauckingbird Theatre Company is putting on at the Off-Broad Street Theater in Center City.
Mauckingbird, the region’s professional theater devoted to gay issues, casts men in the roles of the two sets of lovers in Much Ado — just as Shakespeare would have. But in Mauckingbird’s take, they all play men. It’s a gay version, complete with the themes and sensibilites Shakespeare gave it: jealousy and wit, trickery and honor and, of course, love.
It works because Mauckingbird’s artistic director, Peter Reynolds, who also runs Temple University’s musical theater program, stages it without a wink. It calls no attention to itself and, in fact, takes itself for granted. That becomes quickly clear, and an audience has little choice but to do the same. The results are often revealing, about the play’s soldiers, lovers, townsfolk and leaders, and about the play itself.
The closest this Much Ado comes to coming out as different is in the character of Beatrice, usually the niece to the governor of Messina, but now the nephew. (Reynolds left the names of characters alone, but changed the pronouns or honorifics.) Beatrice, who has long been an intellectual rival of a man named Benedick, is played by Sean Thompson, the only portrayal that suggest flounce — and it works; Shakespeare wrote the character to be catty, and Thompson’s true to that attribute.
For all the other characters in the locale of the Bard’s Messina, being a same-sex couple and becoming legally married with a community’s blessings makes no difference. This sensibility, presented with what you could call serious nonchalance, says something old about the way Shakespeare can hold up in many frames, and underscores a theme that love is love, period. It matters less that characters’ genders are switched and more that their words and motivations are the same.
Leonato, Messina’s governor, is now a woman, played warmly by Cheryl Williams. Benedick is Matt Tallman and his best pal, Claudio, Griffin Back. Claudio’s love interest is the character Hero, a young woman in Shakespeare’s version, but here a male played by Cameron Scot Slusser. LJ Norelli and Evan Raines set the mood with piano and violin. All are excellent in both character building and delivery, backed by a strong cast with a single flaw: that of two constables whose normally funny patter comes off as blithering. That’s probably because their roles have been so deeply cut.
In fact, this Much Ado plays out in 90 minutes with no intermission, about half the time a regularly edited production would take. That makes the comedy less nuanced and generally less of a laugh, given that this version focuses on cake and lacks some of the icing Shakespeare put on it. But it’s still a play about people who trick couples in and out of love, any way — and in any gender — you see it.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
Much Ado About Nothing: Presented by Mauckingbird Theatre Company at Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St., through Aug. 26. Tickets: $25. Information: 215-923-8909 or www.mauckingbird.org.