The Masqueraders’ production of Much Ado about Nothing at the United States Naval Academy, directed by Dr. Megan Geigner, is an inventive twist on Shakespeare’s classic comedy. Set in New Mexico at the end of World War I, the acting, directing, costumes, and lighting combine to create a fun, charming evening in a beautiful location.
The impressive set, designed by Andrew Cohen, resembles a hacienda, with wooden pillars and hanging flowerpots, and benches throughout the stage. The backdrop is overflowing with bright reds and yellows, like a sunset in the old West. There is a ladder leading to the rafters. The set offers plenty of places to hide and eavesdrop on conversations.
The two couples at the heart of this comedy, Benedick (Jonathan Mendez) and Beatrice (Julia Kalshoven), and Claudio (Nick Hajek) and Hero (Clara Navarro), couldn’t be more different. Claudio and Hero are the more traditional, romantic pair, while Benedick and Beatrice are the witty lovers. Both are enjoyable to watch, for different reasons. Hajek plays the romantic Claudio with great emotion, verging on the edge of melodrama. He plays a young man eager to be in love, but terrified of being played for a fool. For him, it feels as though everything could go wrong in an instant. His accusation of Hero is his strongest performance, full of anger and fury as he gives one of the most dramatic speeches in the play. When all is well, though, he is a doting lover, quietly chatting with Hero in a corner.
Navarro is a pleasure as Hero, light and joyful with a clever streak. She is at her best chatting with Kalshoven (Beatrice) about her feelings for Benedict, walking around the stage ensuring that her cousin overhears everything she says. Her reaction to Claudio’s anger is also powerful, a shocked confusion at what her husband-to-be is saying, leading to a horrifying end. The play almost becomes a tragedy.
Mendez is terrific as Benedick. He delivers his witty remarks with precise timing for maximum effect. His justification for loving Beatrice, after everything he’s said against marriage, gets great laughs from its eagerness: “The world must be peopled!” He is also good at physical comedy, hiding behind benches and pillars to overhear conversation, and at one point -hurling himself to the ground to avoid being seen. Navarro elicited many laughs with his false mustache as well.
He is especially strong with Kalshoven. Their chemistry is wonderful to watch, not just their banter, but also their endearing awkwardness as their relationship develops. Kalshoven gets tongue-tied for the first time trying to say how she feels, and Mendez thrusts forth his hand after exclaiming “Let’s be friends!” Their height difference is also a source of comedy, as she is much taller. Towards the end of the play, he lifts her off the high end of the stage. Quite uplifting!
Kalshoven has perfect comic timing too. Her retorts are delivered quickly and expressively, with the same clever, disdainful attitude as Benedick. She also plays the serious moments well. Her anger at the injustice of Hero’s situation is heartfelt, and her request to Benedick is of a woman desperately trying to help her cousin, shows that her character is willing to do anything.
Jonson Henry (Leonato) and Mike Ware (Don Pedro) have a quiet but strong presence. They give their most powerful performances after Hero’s slander, with Henry radiating a palatable and heartbreaking outrage, first at Hero, and then at Don Pedro. Ware responds in kind, and the anger is powerful, which adds a dramatic edge to an otherwise light comedy.
Daniel Moriarty has the right register as Don John. His deep voice booms when describing his plans for causing trouble. And his mustache seems to call back to the old-time villains of silent movies. His follower Borachio (Hayden Burger) is wonderfully dissolute, with an unbuttoned collar, loosened tie, and a bottle always in his hand. He staggers across the stage, more mischievous than evil, and gets laughs whatever he does.
Evan Wray (Dogberry) is full of frantic energy, racing over the stage and knocking over benches. He has a thick, Western accent, and his speeches, full of malapropisms, come out in emphasized gasps, which the audience responded with much laughter. His assistant Verges (played by Eli Vernon) is equally hilarious, visually interpreting to the audience Dogberry’s instructions, with numbered lists and wagging fingers. He nearly drags Dogberry away at one point. Sarah Spain, as George, is their straight man, offering reasonable objections to their instructions. She also has a clever use of rope for Don John’s henchmen.
The costume designs by Jacy Barber effectively captures the time period. The women wear flowing white dresses and pearls; Beatrice at the opening wears a sash that says “Votes for Women.” Don Pedro and his men have military jackets and trousers, which are very old-fashioned looking. When Don John and his henchmen first appear, they are wearing white prison outfits. Dogberry and his crew are decked out in full cowboy gear, with hats, boots, and jackets, like they were starring in a Western movie.
Jake Pittman, Tommy Wolfe, and David Ogden contribute the lighting design and operation. The stage darkens when Dogberry and his men come onstage, giving the impression of night but still illuminating the action. The stage darkens to reflect the tension.
Dr. Megan Geigner’s direction is innovative, creative, and fun. The young cast members are full of energy and work well together. They are totally comfortable with Shakespeare’s language, and bring so much joy to their performances. These talented Masqueraders would make the Bard very proud.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Much Ado About Nothing plays through November 20, 2016, at Mahan Hall at the United States Naval Academy – 121 Blake Road, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.