Shakespeare was used to seeing men play women on stage - it was the legal way to operate a theater in his time. But I'll bet he never dreamed of anything like the gender-bending Much Ado About Nothing that Mauckingbird Theatre Company is putting on at Center City's Off-Broad Street Theater.
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 that preserves Shakespeare's themes and sensibilities: 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. The casting calls no attention to itself and, in fact, takes itself for granted. That quickly becomes clear, and the 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 gets to coming out as different is in the character of Beatrice, usually niece of the governor of Messina, but now the nephew. (Reynolds left the characters' names alone but changed the pronouns and honorifics.) Beatrice, long an intellectual rival of a man named Benedick, is played by Sean Thompson in the only portrayal that suggests flounce - and it works; Shakespeare wrote the character to be catty, and Thompson is true to that attribute.
For all the other characters in the Bard's Messina, being a same-sex couple and becoming legally married with a community's blessings is perfectly plausible. This sensibility, presented with what you could call serious nonchalance, says something about how Shakespeare holds up in many frames, and underscores the idea that love is love, period. It matters less that characters' genders are changed and more that their words and motivations are not.
Leonato, Messina's governor, is now a woman, played warmly by Cheryl Williams. Benedick is Matt Tallman and his best pal, Claudio, is Griffin Back. Claudio's love interest is the character Hero, originally a young woman 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, two constables whose usually funny patter comes off as blather, probably because their roles have been so deeply cut.
In fact, this Much Ado plays out in 90 minutes, without intermission, about half the time of a regularly edited production. That makes the comedy less nuanced and generally less of a laugh, given that it focuses on cake and lacks some of Shakespeare's icing. But it's still about people who trick couples into and out of love, any way they can, and in any gender you see it.
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.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.