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Theatre Intime’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’: a lovely middle ground

<h5>The curtain call at Theatre Intime’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of Elliot Lee</h6>
The curtain call at Theatre Intime’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ 
Courtesy of Elliot Lee

Sometimes, on a cold November evening, Shakespeare is just what you need.

Theatre Intime’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” the Bard of Avon’s silly enemies-to-lovers comedy, opened on Friday, Nov. 12 and will occur three more times this weekend.

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Arriving at Hamilton Murray Theatre (Intime’s student-run venue), it felt, as so much of this semester does, like we’d beaten the coronavirus — almost. Buying my seat at the box office and settling in felt like going to the theatre in the before-times, except that I still had to give my information to the ticket worker for contact tracing.

I forgot all of the COVID-19 protocols, and all my other problems, when the show began. I laughed and nearly cried. Some hundreds of years after writing, the jokes still land and the story strikes fresh.

As synopsis, the play, directed by Katie Bushman ’22, follows two marriages: between Claudio (Harit Raghunathan ’25) and Hero (Lauren Owens ’25), and Benedick (Solomon Bergquist ’24) and Beatrice (Cassy James ’23). The play begins with Claudio and Benedick returning from war. Claudio and Hero, who are long-time lovers, find their marriage nearly squandered by the tricks of Don John (Lana Gaige ’24), who hates Claudio. Benedick and Beatrice’s relationship, on the other hand, is all japes and caustic sarcasm. Over the last three acts Don Pedro (Alex Conboy ’25), Benedick’s friend, contrives a plot to have Benedick and Beatrice fall in love and marry.

Claudio and Hero’s relationship warms the heart. Raghunathan’s acting is precise and thoughtful. He has an actor’s face: strong bones, a mile-wide smile, and eyebrows that do work. He’s a brilliant actor and even when he doesn’t have the line, he is always contributing to the scene.

A couple times in the play, Claudio is crushed when Hero nearly leaves him. Raghunathan’s weeping and screaming on stage is convincing and piercing. But he always seems shrewdly conscious that all of Claudio’s weeping is, indeed, much ado about nothing: Hero never actually intends to leave Claudio, and he only thinks this because of Don John’s tricks.

Owens’s Hero is nothing short of adorable, glowing with emotive feeling — her acting gives off a warmth I could feel ten rows deep in the audience. It was perhaps in this performance that I most lost myself in the play. Not only because Hero’s performance was convincing — and it was — but it seemed like Owens had a love for the character that was genuine and thrilling to watch.

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Claudio and Hero made me happy; Benedick and Beatrice made me laugh — a lot. They throw elevated jipes and smarmy claims at each other for three hours straight. Bergquist’s voice is unlike any I’ve heard before: it whines, yells, and whispers with a squirmy agility. His diction and power of voice is such that his white disposable mask kept slipping off his face.

He sometimes struggles to take his acting down a notch for the more emotional scenes. But his physical comedy, and his interactions with Beatrice, Claudio, and Don Pedro, were as funny as any Shakespeare comedy I’ve seen.

(Indeed Bergquist, along with about half the cast, wore a mask for the production. The masks blended in for the most part — at times they even could pass for tastefully matching accessories. That being said, kiss scenes with masks made it difficult at times to suspend disbelief.)

James’s Beatrice stole the stage over and over again. Beatrice always seems to know a little more than she lets on; James has a way of smiling to the audience that lets us in on the joke. As a consequence of Beatrice’s character and James’s skill, she’s the center of attention in every scene she’s in, even during Claudio and Hero’s wedding. Elegant and resourceful, she quietly dominates the show.

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The pairing of Don Pedro and Don John kept me thinking throughout the show. Brothers in the script, Conboy and Gaige rarely speak to each other on stage but are always foiling each other’s plans. Both actors have a mastery of Shakespearean prose. It takes skill to take the stilts off of Shakespeare’s English without resorting to kitsch or excessive modernization.

Conboy achieves it through a businesslike, authoritative tone: I was always ready to follow what she had to say. Gaige reveled in a furious performance of Don John, hunching the wide shoulders of a green army jacket and shouting to a variety of attendants and lieges. She seemed to relish being angry, which made the bard’s lines rip off the page.

Big-band jazz jingled through the speakers in the theatre before the show began. The play — originally taking place in sixteenth-century Messina, a city in Sicily — was set shortly after the First World War, seemingly in America.

This was a misstep in the show’s production. There are, indeed, themes in Shakespeare’s script that reflect those of the interwar period in America: women’s liberation, modernist cheek, and skepticism about marriage, to name a few. (One of the many meanings of the title is “Much Ado About an O-Thing,” a euphemism for the vagina: there’s opportunity for comment on women’s rights.)

But these themes aren’t overtly (or even covertly) drawn out in the direction. Shakespeare plays can handle being set anywhere — in the last five years, productions of “Much Ado” have been set in contemporary Mexico, Sicily, and Georgia. But here the setting feels, for the most part, like an excuse to dress the characters in flowery dresses and trim suits.

That said, though it’s capricious, the setting is pleasant to watch and executed well. The costume design by Allison Silldorf ’25 is clean and efficient and sets us quickly in the intended time. The set is simple but effective: a planting-box stage left, a flowery trellis stage right, a park bench, and a small gazebo is all that’s necessary for the actors to depict a variety of locations.

The play, in general, is about the fuss we’ll go to over perceived attacks on our love. The title is a pun on “Much Ado About Noting”: characters note — say obviously in hopes someone will overhear — to each other about love interests and chaos ensues. (“Nothing” and “noting” were near-homophones in Elizabethan English.)

There’s about a two-hour stretch in the middle of the play where nothing actually happens on stage: people just talk about the romances, and try to force Benedick and Beatrice together. You’re thrust into the world, giggling along with the story. It’s gossip, chatter, talk — it’s nothing, and you can’t get enough.

Great art makes us less lonely — it connects us to something or someone outside ourselves, if we’re empathetic, generous, and unironically enthusiastic. Sometimes we fancy ourselves individual creatures, floating with individual problems, leading individual lives. Great art, again, pulls us from that lonely vista. It doesn’t exactly pull us to its time and place, nor does it force itself into our modern day; we meet it in a middle place between then and now. I’ve rarely felt less lonely, in that middle place, than while watching Intime’s “Much Ado.”

Gabriel Robare is a Senior Writer for The Prospect, co-Head Editor of the Puzzles section, and a Contributing News Writer at the ‘Prince,’ who often covers literature and the self. He can be reached at grobare@princeton.edu, and on Instagram and Twitter at @gabrielrobare. He previously served as an Associate Sports Editor.

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