Careless Whispers: Set in 1920s Paris, CSF’s romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” will bring audiences in on all the secrets
Leave it to William Shakespeare to make so much of “nothing” in his rollicking, occasionally harrowing, romantic comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.”
The title evokes the contemporary idea of a “nothingburger” — lies and innuendo at the heart of rumor. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s time, “noting” was a close homophone of “nothing” that referred to eavesdropping and gossip.
Then there’s the question of what fills the lull, the void, the nothing that follows the high-drama “something” of a just-concluded war, says Kevin Rich, director of “Much Ado” for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s 66th season.
“Shakespeare intentionally sets “Much Ado About Nothing” at the conclusion of a war. He’s very much interested in the concept of nothingness — what do we make ‘much ado’ about in the absence of war? What conflicts do we create?” says Rich, associate professor of Theatre & Dance and director of the Applied Shakespeare Certificate at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The play revolves around romance and intrigue among two groups of soldiers on the sumptuous estate of Leonato, governor of Messina, upon their return from war. Though “Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedies, the threat of violence and injustice rumble like approaching thunder through its penultimate act.
Saucy banter and the slow-burn “enemies-to-lovers” dynamic between Beatrice and Benedick, along with the Keystone Kops-style vibe of the hapless constable Dogberry, give the play much of its comic spark, even as scurrilous gossip peddled by the villainous Don John threatens the burgeoning romance between Claudio and Hero, the governor’s daughter.
“There are moments where it puts pressure on what we should expect from a comedy, moments where the audience wonders, ‘Is this going to end well?’” Rich, noting that “King Lear,” which opens in the Rippon July 8, also explores the cadences of “nothing,” but in a tragic vein.
Rich decided to set CSF’s 2023 production in Paris at the end of World War I, when the city’s Left Bank buzzed with the post-war cultural vibrancy and hedonism of the Jazz Age, existentialism and the Lost Generation.
“Because Shakespeare’s plays are always a collision of old and new, I usually don’t like to set a play in a particular time period,” he says. “But with “Much Ado,” I couldn’t resist bringing it a little bit closer.”
After serving since 2018 as actor-manager for CSF’s immensely popular “original practices” productions — performed in the manner of Elizabethan England, with limited rehearsal, a small company of actors receiving only their own lines and no modern technology — Rich is excited to bring some of the “OP” spirit to large audiences in the iconic Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre on the eve of its multi-year renovation.
“It’s an opportunity to bring some of the really fun stuff we’ve explored in the original-practices experiments into a main-stage production,” says Rich, a veteran of what he calls, “the mothership of original practices,” the American Shakespeare Center. “Shakespeare wrote these plays to be performed with the audience in plain view, with a ton of interaction, no fourth wall. The characters know they are in a play, and the audience is part of the story,”
“Much Ado’s” whispers and complicity make it a perfect fit for an OP-inflected approach, Rich says: “This play is about overhearing things, hiding, finding places to hide — those are all ways for the audience to feel complicit in what’s happening.”
Unlike more fanciful plays in the canon, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest,” “Much Ado” is very much anchored in the real world, against a backdrop of privilege and prosperity. But the unique arboreal and astral atmosphere of the Rippon on a summer night will create its own in Leonato’s garden, where most of the play takes place.
“We’ve set as much of it in the gardens as possible, to take advantage of this beautiful outdoor space,” Rich says. “We want the audience to feel like they are in Leonato’s garden with us.”
“Much Ado About Nothing” opens June 11th in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre.