Silence is the perfectest herald of joy, so might I say how joyful I am that in this case breaking the silence is going to herald all the answers to the questions asked of Michael Ryan Neely as he sits down with me to discuss what it’s like playing the lovestruck ingénue Claudio in the Annapolis Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing.
What makes Claudio at first so very reluctant to admitting that he might be in love?
Ryan: Well I think he’s been in the influence of the right noble Benedick who is opposed to love and marriage. He’s young and so he’s impressionable. He’s being influenced by his elders, particularly Benedick and Don Pedro, and given the way Benedick rails against it he’s much more reluctant because of their influences. But I think he’s more susceptible to the idea that he could be in love than Benedick is, certainly.
Your last production with ASTC was as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, how does Claudio differ from Darcy and how are they the same?
I would say that Claudio is…um…well he’s a little more developmental. He’s learning what it means to be a man and how a man is supposed to behave whereas Darcy is much more confident. He has this preconceived notion of how a man is supposed to act and what a man is supposed to be, what his responsibilities are, and Claudio is still learning all of that. By the end of each of their plays respectively they grow into what a man is and what a man has to be in regards to responsibilities and how to exist in relationships with women. Claudio is more of the ingénue in the process whereas Darcy is much more self-assured.
They’re also very different too. I just think in general that Claudio is younger— it never really specifies his exact age, just that he’s young and in the same age range as Hero, whereas with Darcy, Austen says he’s in his late 20’s, so there’s the age difference which provides their levels of experience, in Claudio’s case his inexperience. A big part of Darcy was unraveling what he knows and believes in as a man versus Claudio who is discovering it as he goes and building it up from there. Claudio learns what it is to be a man, while Darcy has the idea already which he then has to realign when he finds himself in a relationship. Claudio is much less self-assured, I think I said that, and he’s also naïve, much more so than Darcy was.
Can you relate to Claudio’s notion of love at first sight?
I think so. Because in a way what’s so interesting about Claudio is that he’s very optimistic. In a way he believes that love will work itself out, and that love will be enough, and then of course he very quickly finds out that it’s not. And I know it’s because he believes in the process of love, him being naïve again really coming into play here. I might be less trusting, Claudio really just jumps right in and doesn’t think twice about it, I’m more logical. And cautious.
In the Benedick gulling scene you and Balthasar, as well as Don Pedro and Leonato burst into a crooner-style song; what was that experience like?
It was a really fun process! We played around with several ideas. At first it was just Balthasar (Jonathan Jacobs) singing the song and then we had decided that “no, we need the whole group.” Our first time it was this big whole boy band and it was cheesy and it was definitely for the audience and that effect. But then we slowed it down making it this gradual build. First there’s Balthazar who’s just singing along and then we add Leonato (Rob McQuay) who starts to get into the song. And then you’ve got Claudio going— “oh, you’re into this? Me too!” and he gets all excited and joins in. And then finally Don Pedro (Devion McArthur) just starts dancing right along with it, and then you have all four of us going. Each of our characters just gets so sucked into it, and the whole thing builds to this big fun moment. Terry Bouma actually composed the song— this little diddy— and we worked with her for the harmonies and a little bit of character as well, and we built it on that, on the vocal side of it.
What is your overall impression of the show being set in the 1950s?
I think what’s good is that Much Ado is a very uplifting show. It’s very fun, after the war is over and it’s all about celebrating. The 1950s was post World War II with this celebratory atmosphere, it’s one of the high points of our culture. The dance is very much in the style of the 50s— this decade and the 1920s are the big cultural high points, because everyone is just so happy that the war is over, which is great for this show.
Of course the colors are very bright and Much Ado is a very bright show. The party scene is very essential just so that everyone can see how much fun they’re having. They’re having so much fun. And during that scene you’ve got Claudio really messing around, he’s cowboy Claudio with the Stetson and the jeans, and he finds that very funny. Not so much do the other characters find it funny, Hero though. She finds it adorable and perfect because in her eyes he can do no wrong. He just lives in that dumb but cute existence for a minute during the party.
What is the most challenging thing about Claudio for you as an actor?
I think, um, what’s tough is just in the context of the play— just buying into what Claudio believes in. You know the gullibility of it, I just don’t buy it. Don Jon tricks him— he goes and he says my brother’s just wooed for himself, and then Claudio finds out that he’s LIED about it, but he STILL believes him when he slanders Hero again! He’s just so much more gullible than the rest. He’s willing to believe in the good in people, he dives into it, the over trusting, and that’s his downfall.
The emotional complexity is very hard but not if you dive right into it, not for this comedy anyway. It’s not that Claudio is not intelligent, he’s just much more accepting of certain ideas than I would be.
What do you do to find that giddy stupid chemistry in those rare moments with Hero?
I think onstage we cultivate a relationship that’s fun within the joking spirit. When you woo, or when you’re courting someone it’s lighter, more fun than a serious romance. So I focused on trying to be charming and fun. The conversations that I have with Alyssa, who plays Hero, during the party scene or other moments where we aren’t the focus, those are a little funnier, and a little more smile inducing. Of course these conversations will remain things that you don’t get to hear, so you can wonder just what we’re smiling at.
I mean every role has me in it but emotional recall and expressions like that aren’t useful for me as an actor. You have those who can tolerate it and use it but for me it’s all about imaginary circumstances, rather than recall and that’s how I found those moments.
If Claudio isn’t your dream Shakespeare role, who is and why?
Well, probably Hamlet – I guess. Because as an actor Hamlet is the role that you test yourself against. It’s a great emotional investment, balanced with comic timing and it’s all about the risk. You throw yourself into that role and you measure your technique and ability to express ideas against it. It’s beautifully written, and as actors we are always wanting to do our best and challenge ourselves, and that’s the role—the challenge to do it with.
Claudio is really hard because he’s not as sympathetic as a character. He’s tough, Benedick is the central focus but Benedick has charm and wit to sort of ground him while Claudio is not as witty and let’s be honest, he’s foolish. And I hope the audience identifies with me trying to bring out that foolishness. It’s interesting because I think about this during the run, but more so when I’m talking about it and I guess it comes down to me really just trying to communicate his story in general.
Do you think Calduio is blinded into gullibility by his quick tumble into love?
I think he is a little. He’s swept up into love, he’s just swept up into believing that she’s this maiden without really know anything about her, and so he finds himself just as easily swept up into believing she’s been false. I mean, Don Pedro has to woo for him. So he hasn’t had a ton of experience with women and wooing in general. So actually that’s more his fault than him being in love; He’s just really naïve when it comes to that, and he’s just inexperienced.
What has playing Claudio taught you about yourself?
Just to stay focused. That you can never play emotion, you can only play an action that works toward a goal in the circumstances. And if you do that—play the action— then the emotions will come. Coming from a place that is true to myself as an actor and melding that with being true to myself as the character; it’s a process. But it’s all about the truth.
In what ways do you find yourself relating to Claudio and Hero’s whirlwind romance?
I guess this is really more of how life is in general, not just their romance. Life is tough. Life is up and down. They fall into their honeymoon period really quickly and then they discover other things about each other that they then have to hope they are compatible with. And of course this is all intensified because the whole arch of their relationship happens in two and a half hours on the stage. So the honeymoon moment is one scene.
Are there moments that happen that you Ryan would handle differently than the way that Claudio handles them?
Oh, absolutely! I wouldn’t believe Don Jon! Are you kidding me? He’s just literally said that Don Pedro wooed for himself rather than Claudio and he’s caught LYING! I would have a little more foresight! But at the same time, you have to buy into Claudio…because he’s just a little…well slightly— OK maybe like 1.5 above on the scale of naïve than me. His belief in what Hero is becomes the crux of their relationship. He actually has no idea whether or not she is a pure maid or if she’s more of a Margaret, and I’d like to think that I wouldn’t be basing a huge relationship decision like that on just a belief.
What’s your favorite moment in the show?
Oh boy! Oh gosh, um can I give you three? I have three. One of my favorite moments is just discovering Benedick’s reaction in the gulling scene— where he’s set up to overhear that Beatrice loves him—because that just spirals into comedy and plot advancement.
For Claudio, personally my favorite moment is him wronging Hero. It’s that moment when he has to realize—Oh my God! I’ve said these horrible things and I’ve pushed her to the floor, I’ve slandered her—I can’t imagine in real life doing that to a human being and then to find out that I was wrong on top of it. I can’t imagine the humility I’d need to recover from that. He has four different people tell him he’s a villain and he keeps saying “No, I’m not,” but then to realize he’s totally wrong. He’s loved her and then ruined her and the lives of all these other people. It’s a lot. Rough.
And my third, I think, is when he realizes that she’s alive again. Because there is this great big apology and because he thought she was dead, now they can come together, and it took finding that moment to express his grievous regret and sorrow at what he’s done, and it all just sort of works itself out here which is great.
What’s your favorite scene that you wish you were in?
Bridezilla. I just wanna smoke through my through my nostrils. That question, honestly, comes down to what I like watching. Dogberry’s scene, definitely, because it’s a totally different atmosphere, he’s literally just a fool and he really means well but he’s a fool and that’s hilarious.
Also, when Benedick and Beatrice come together because they’ve been tricked into it without even realizing it. They have a history together, you know that Claudio and Hero just jump into it. Rough. So it’s really rewarding to see them make it together, Beatrice and Benedick, because of all that they’ve gone through in the past to get to that point.
On that note—if I get a twitter it will be called NeelysIdeallies— follow me there for more thoughts on my characters. I just don’t know what I could tweet that people would want to follow. So instead, I hope people come see and enjoy a good love story. Watch us create magic on stage.
‘Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 1: Choreographer Ken Skrzesz by Joel Markowitz.
‘Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 2: Alyssa Bouma (Hero) by Amanda Gunther.
‘Much To Learn About’ Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Part 3: Michael Ryan Neely (Claudio) by Amanda Gunther.
Amanda Gunther’s review of Much Ado About Nothing.
Much Ado About Nothing plays through August 18, 2013 at Annapolis Shakespeare Company performing at The Bowie Playhouse —16500 White Marsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.