Monday, February 8, 2016

Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Mauckingbird Theatre Company's gay version of Shakespeare's play underscores love as a dynamic that has no gender. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews.

Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing'

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Matt Tallman (left) as Benedick and Sean Thompson as Beatrice in Mauckingbird Theatre Company's "Much Ado About Nothing." Photo by Ian Paul Guzzone.

By Howard Shapiro

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,, 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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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