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It's a whole new world in Pioneer Theatre Company's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Published February 18, 2014 1:39 pm

Stage • The Bard's classic comedy of middle-aged lovers moves to the late Middle Ages.
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It's a dramatic puzzle, making the talkative Shakespearean battle-of-the-wits comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" relevant to contemporary audiences. After all, in an age when even your grandmother can explain the controversy over twerking, Elizabethan standards of sexuality and loyalty don't always translate easily.

In the new Pioneer Theatre Company production, guest director Matt August sets the story in a fantastical Arthurian borderlands. Shakespeare's classic tale of middle-aged lovers, the sparring Beatrice and Benedick, will unfold in the late Middle Ages, where chastity and chivalry are the highest virtues, and characters believe their rulers receive authority from God.

Setting the production in an Arthurian world illuminates that time period, illuminates the story of "Much Ado" and illuminates our age as well, says T. Ryder Smith, who plays Benedick.

"You always have to do a Shakespeare play for the first time," Smith says. "You have to regard him as a talented young playwright with very good ideas and not think of anything anyone has done in the past. You have to look at the text for the first time and let the text tell you the story."

Interested viewers can rent Joss Whedon's 2012 contemporary-dress cinema adaptation of "Much Ado" or revisit Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson's charming and popular 1993 film. Watch those at home, if you like, August says. That ground has been trod.

"I don't like realism in Shakespeare. I think that's boring. I think that reduces Shakespeare," says August, who directed PTC's 2012 production of the hip-hop musical "In The Heights" and is equally at home directing a one-woman version of "Macbeth" as the Broadway show of "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

The new PTC production instead will present a wholly theatrical universe, influenced by the aesthetics of Disney princesses and TV's "Game of Thrones." "That's because I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and reading comic books and graphic novels," August says, with a laugh. He was further influenced by the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, a pop-culture fanboy résumé more likely for a filmmaker than a theater director.

Yet against this cultural backdrop, it would be plausible for a woman like Beatrice to have missed her opportunity at love and still be a maid. She has formed another identity for herself, as has her verbal sparring partner, Benedick, a mercenary soldier.

"I love the world Matt has created for us to play this story in," says Rebecca Watson, who plays Beatrice. Watson describes the culture as one dedicated to the values of honesty, hierarchy and loyalty to country and God.

So when a woman doesn't comply with social mores about marriage, it's a big deal. "She is fighting for the right of choice, an individual's choice, not a feminist's choice," Watson says.

Beyond aesthetics, there are other interesting twists in the production. One involves Max Robinson's portrayal of Dogberry, the parish constable. Because the town's men have been gone at war, children will serve as Dogberry's crew of watchmen, like a rag-tag Boy Scout troop. In another twist, Utah-based actor Colleen Baum will portray a religious leader as a mystic wise woman.

As for Smith, he says he's enjoying the opportunity to play a romantic lead after a career built on the characters of villains.

"But he's got a sardonic sense of humor, so I think it works," Smith says. "What I bring to Benedick — apart from a lifetime of romantic disappointment and regret — is respect for what he is through history."

The character has sacrificed his love life to his work as a professional soldier and has pledged himself to serve his prince and to mentor Claudio, a younger soldier.

Smith is serving the production by chatting it up on his travels through Salt Lake City during his PTC residency. "It's not boring," is how he describes the play to clerks at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and to other TRAX riders. When he sees a flicker of boredom — or fear — in their eyes at the mention of the Bard, he invites his listeners to "come have this really interesting talk with a guy named Shakespeare who's really funny and has these great insights about what's going on today."

"This is my mission," he says, "to convert people to Shakespeare."

A visual highlight is expected to be the costumes by guest designer Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, whose work appeared at the Beijing Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. "They're incredible, so gorgeous I don't even know how to describe them," says August of designs that include armor and chainmail, while mixing visual influences from fairyland to the Crusades.

Smith terms them as "resplendent," and without offering spoilers, praised the way the costumes offer a commentary on the age of chivalry and a woman's appearance in public during that time period. "They're not subservient to the text, but a play unto themselves," he says. "You could probably not speak a word of English and see this production, and you'd see an entire play enacted — war, romance, devotion, the clash of cultures, loyalty, love — all that simply by what the costumes are doing."

ellenf@sltrib.com

The drama of 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Pioneer Theatre Company presents the Shakespeare comedy that circles around the lively battle of the sexes between the mature, well-spoken Beatrice and her equally spirited sparring partner, Benedick. Oh yes, and the play is also about young love, chivalry, chastity and fidelity to God and country.

When • Friday, Feb. 21-Saturday, March 8; 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday matinees

Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $25-$44; $5 more on day of show; K-12 students half price for Monday and Tuesday shows; $5 discounts for first seven performances purchased on or before Feb. 14; at 801-581-6961; http://www.pioneertheatre.org.