It’s right after World War II, and a small theater company is reuniting for the first time at a formal dinner party. And what do they decide to do? William Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”
Or, rather, “Much Ado About Nothing (at Dinner),” the Bard’s comedy as adapted and directed by Melissa Lourie.
“When you have an elegant dance party, everybody’s in tuxes and gowns, there’s stuff on the table, we have hats and masks, and let’s see what we can do (with) that,” explains Melissa Lourie, founder and artistic director of Middlebury Actors Workshop. “It requires a lot of creative problem-solving, a lot of ingenuity, and I have such a talented company that it’s been a real collaboration of ideas.
“A lot of challenges — but it’s been really fun.”
The Middlebury professional theater company will present “Much Ado About Nothing (at Dinner),” featuring eight Vermont actors, Oct. 24-27 at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, and Nov. 1 and 2 at Burlington’s FlynnSpace.
In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” written 1598-99 and first published in 1623, soldiers, after a successful battle, find themselves spending a leisurely month — a time for love and lust. At the estate of Leonato, governor of Messina, it’s love at first sight for Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and Leonato’s daughter Hero, and hate at first sight for the soldier and lord Benedick and Leonato’s niece Hero.
However, miscreants convince Pedro that Hero has been unfaithful, and toy with Beatrice and Benedick’s disaffection. As it’s comedy, though, it all comes to right.
Lourie says she isn’t changing the play, but including it in a larger setting. Sitting around the table, what starts out as a simple reading of the play, turns quickly into an inventive staging. Actors play multiple roles using the objects available to them from their dinner.
“This is a group of total leisure, except for the constable and the clown characters,” Lourie said of Shakespeare’s characters. “It just seemed like, if you had a beautiful table and an elegantly costumed group of people, that this play will work because that’s the environment of the play.”
And the themes of courtship and romance easily move into the 1940s.
“The relationship between Benedick and Beatrice, which is so fun, and so witty and so combative, struck me like the kind of 1940s romantic comedies starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, those films of the ‘40s where there’s a lot of wit and repartee,” Lourie said.
Another look to the 1940s was the Grouch Marx films where, in a tuxedo at a very elegant dinner, he often had these comic moments tormenting the naïve Margaret Dumont.
“He starts doing this ridiculous stuff, and it’s so funny because of the incongruity of the elegant setting with the absolutely madcap and crazy stuff that Groucho does,” Lourie said. “That was another inspiration.”
Creating atmosphere will be music of the era, including that of Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the like.
“It works really well,” Lourie said. “And the big ball is all swing dancing — so it’s a lot of fun.”
The reasoning behind the adaptation centered on the large scale of this and other Shakespeare plays.
“My other experiences directing Shakespeare in Vermont were always fun, but the challenge I couldn’t always overcome was that there’s not a whole lot of actors in Vermont who can fill all 20 roles when you do Shakespeare with a budget like mine,” Lourie said. “I knew that I could get eight people who would be really, really strong and play multiple roles.”
The cast features actors well-known in Vermont professional theater: Ethan Bowen, Chris Caswell, Maren Langdon, Craig Maravich, Lindsay Pontius, Madeleine Russell, Steve Small and Eric Reid-St. John.
Although Lourie eschews elaborate settings in Shakespeare anyway, the idea of the dinner setting also came for practical reasons.
“I think it was partly the nature of the play itself,” Lourie said. “‘Much Ado’ is about these rich aristocratic people who are always having parties. And all of their mischief and plots get going as they are indulging in partying because they’ve just come home from a war.
“So the setting of a dinner party, an elegant black tie dinner party, with a beautiful table as the centerpiece of the set struck me as a way to recreate that ambience and a very minimal means of telling the story,” Lourie said. “I had the idea of putting it in the 1940s after World War II so we could mirror what happens in the play, i.e. soldiers coming home to have fun and court young women.”
The actors are performing “Much Ado About Nothing” as a celebration of getting back together again now that the war’s over.
“So, they’ve invited their friends — the audience — to watch them do it,” Lourie said. “The imagination of the actors and the audience comes into play.”