Spokane Ensemble Theater is giving another Shakespeare favorite a summertime staging with Much Ado About Nothing | Arts & Culture | Spokane | The Pacific Northwest Inlander
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Kiki White (centre) draws on flamingos, reality TV and more to play Hero.
The modern romantic comedy — with its uncertainty of mixed signals, the fine line between irritation and infatuation, the casual scheme to force a particular outcome, the blissful moment in which unrequited love becomes required — has a long lineage, and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing has undoubtedly shaped the template.
Set in Messina, Italy, during a time of military conflict, Much Ado is the story of two pairs of would-be lovers: Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero. A series of misunderstandings, both deliberate and accidental, keeps them apart right up until the point where it brings them together. Because that circuitous path to love is filled with wry one-liners and clever conversational jousting, Much Ado remains a perennial favorite of audiences and actors alike.
Spokane Ensemble Theater is gearing up for a new staging of Much Ado co-directed by Rio Alberto and Juan Mas, who jointly stepped in after the show’s original director was called away by other professional commitments.
At that time, Mas was on the other side of the state directing Hamlet for the Seattle Shakespeare Company, but he saw this as an “opportune moment” to keep the production’s momentum going while also working with Alberto to up the creative ante.
“I hadn’t done Much Ado before,” Mas says, “and Rio and I would talk on the phone every day on my way to rehearsal. He was telling me his ideas and some of the things he wanted to do, which I really liked. We started collaborating over the phone about how to take this piece and make it a new experience for our local theater audience.”
The simplest and most obvious change involved turning Messina into “a make-believe lake somewhere between Spokane and Priest River,” Idaho.
“It’s supposed to be 2021. The soldiers are coming back from Afghanistan. And everything we’re doing theme-wise, set-design-wise has got a Pacific Northwest feel. People are going to make those connections and see this as being more in their backyard than in some far-off Italian villa,” Mas says.
That local theme gets a natural boost from the open-air backdrop of this production, which takes place in the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture’s outdoor amphitheater. Spokane Ensemble Theater has also partnered with the Community School to have students work on the set and costume design — especially for the famous masked ball scene where Beatrice and Benedick trade insults.
“It’s been cool seeing these kids get into the story, which is right along with what Rio and I wanted this to be. It becomes Shakespeare for the community, by the community.”
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Co-director Rio Alberto set the Italian love story in the Inland Northwest.
In a bid to involve and reflect more parts of the local community, Mas and Alberto have also made conscious choices about casting and script. That’s meant cutting and rearranging scenes to make characters like Borachio and Margaret more prominent. Dogberry is being played by a female actor (Bridget Pretz) who’s chosen to play the role as a man. Borachio is now Borachia (Maeve Griffith). Likewise, Claudio is now Claudia (Erin Sellers).
Changes like these aren’t at all unusual. In recent decades, many directors have approached all of Shakespeare’s work, much Ado included, in a way that subverts convention or teases out new themes. A 1982 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Terry Hands used a mirrored set to underscore the characters’ narcissism. Director Iqbal Khan transferred a 2012 staging to India in order to highlight what he described as “the parallels between early modern England and modern-day Delhi.” In 2019, New York Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park staged an all-Black performance set amid the tense political climate of contemporary Georgia.
Playing opposite Sellers’ Claudia is Kiki White as her lover, Hero, daughter to Messina’s governor. On the advice of an assistant stage director, White toyed with the idea of an astrological basis for her character — a Virgo, maybe: “intelligent,” “straightforward” but sometimes “cranky.” Then someone suggested using an animal as inspiration. White settled on a flamingo.
“Then I thought that each scenario is completely different. Maybe she’s not always a flamingo — this pretty, gorgeous animal. Maybe she could be a tiger. Maybe she’s a bunny,” White says with a laugh. “Now that I have more experience with acting, I feel that the best way to tell the story is through nonverbal communication.”
White’s first major participation in live Shakespeare came last summer with Twelfth Night in Spokane Ensemble Theater’s first-ever production, also hosted at the MAC. In retrospect, she would have liked to have spent more time diving into the text. That’s one of the reasons she’s approaching this play — which reminds her of a matchmaking reality TV show — with such gusto.
“For some reason, this feels different. I have a different relationship with Hero. I’m just like, ‘Oh, I’m learning this about her or discovering this.’ And I’m very excited to be able to do this. A little nervous, too. But I don’t look at this as old text anymore. It became like everyday language to me. I’ve grown to love Shakespeare, surprisingly. ”
White says she hopes that audiences arrive with the same receptivity toward Shakespeare’s work in general, and this production in particular. That would certainly suit Mas. For him, this Much Ado represents a collective effort to bridge Elizabethan England with present-day Spokane, fostering a better “understanding [of] Shakespeare and who he wrote it for” while also asking, “Who are we putting this on for now?” ♦
Much Ado About Nothing • June 16-26; Thu-Sat at 7 pm, Sun at 5 pm • $15 • Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture • 2316 W. First Ave. • spokeaneensembletheatre.com • 509-456-3931