Last Friday, Pandemic Theatre began their quarantine interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing.” Each week they will have another act, totaling five in all.
You might wonder what Pandemic Theatre is. Even through the darkest times since the Greek’s began presenting performances on mountaintops, actors and playwrights have been compelled to perform. During the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, many of the “scripts” disappeared. Some of the plays, usually religious in nature, managed to be passed down. Most cultures do dramatic storytelling in some form. So, it is not surprising that groups like Pandemic Theatre have popped up. I would like to think it’s in the genes of performance artists. In this case, 25 actors from the D.C. area volunteered to tread the boards from the safety of their homes, giving us their own interpretations of various classical texts.
It is fitting in this time of smart phones and Zoom that they chose, “Much Ado About Nothing.” In case you did not know, the word “Nothing” is really a play on the word “noting” which in Elizabethan times meant eavesdropping. In a sense, the viewer is eavesdropping on these actors in their own domiciles Of course, most of the performers are separated from each other by more than six feet. So, sometimes, one actor plays multiple roles.
This Shakespearean rom-com is probably one of his best and in all likelihood laid the foundation for much of the romantic comedies we see today. Most scholars would rate “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Twelfth Night” as his best in this genre. (Although, I am partial to a “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”) The play has the usual mixed up identities, eavesdropping, as well as a strong female and a strong male character who fight but eventually fall in love. It also has a wonderfully written villain, Don John, and some unforgettable comic characters.
The play was produced and directed by Acacia Danielson. The actors had a say on the scenes they wanted to perform, and Danielson made the final decision.
I had the chance to watch Act I the first weekend. If you want to hear the dialogue exactly as written, you will be happy with this version. If you wanted interaction and lots of staging, well, be willing to be flexible. Sometimes cast members are not human. In one scene, a pet cat named Mim is used to play Benedict, the main suitor with his (or her) master, Em Whitworth, playing Claudio. Of course, the cat doesn’t talk, or maybe refused to talk, after all it is a cat. The words are projected as subtitles for Benedict’s dialogue. Ryan Driscoll used the age-old technique of puppetry, having two stuffed animals do a scene with Benedict, Claudio, and Don Pedro. It reminded me of a puppet theatre I saw in Belgium performing “Cyrano.” In a few scenes one actor played several roles. In a humorous comic scene, Dylan Arredondo plays Leonato and Antonia (in drag). It was done quite flamboyantly in mime with subtitles.
It takes a bit to get over the fact that different actors play the same part, and each scene needs to be watched as its own entity. However, by the time the cat came on I was in the groove.
The other actors included, Conor Patrick Donahue as Leonato, Meredith Garagiola as Beatrice, Nick Bryon as Messenger, Julia Proctor as Leonato, (her daughter plays Hero), Michael Dix Thomas as Benedict, Katelyn Manfre as Beatrice, Benjamin J. Henderson as Don Pedro, Mark Cabus as Messenger, Colin and Jennsen Henderson as Don John, Matt Castleman (as a radio disc jockey) as Don Pedro and Claudio, and Elizabeth Ung, using makeup and costumes as Don John, Borachio and Conrade. All brought their own flavor to their character and kept the viewing wanting to see more.
From Left to Right : Penny (Hero) Plant (Claudio) Act II
Act II contained new, inspired creativity. In a well-paced Scene 1, Meredith Garagiola and Conor Patrick Donahue used Meredith’s adorable Samoyed, Penny, to play Hero and a stuffed Arctic fox to play Antonio. Garagiola played Beatrice while Donahue took on the dual roles of Leonato and Antonio. In a later scene, they added a house plant with Donahue’s voice-over to play Claudio. In a truly oddball approach, a scene with Benedict, Claudio, Don Pedro, Don John and Borachio, Mason Catharini voiced the roles by using gummy bears as stand-in actors. His gummies spoke an unrecognizable language so subtitles were used. It was a clever idea, but the only criticism is the subtitles went by so quickly, I could not read them. If this format is used in the future, they should stay up a bit longer. The gummies spoke in “real” language during monologues.
“One might wonder what Bill Shakespeare would have thought about his work being done with smart phones and other modern devices. I think he would say, ‘All the world’s a stage,’ whether your world is a theatre, a lawn, or the place you hang your hat.”
Suzy Alden used cut out dolls (with appropriate COVID-19 masks) for her scene that featured several characters. Another dog, Bella, played Boy to Michael Dix Thomas’ Benedict. Matt Castleman was perfectly sinister playing the two villains, Don John and Borachio. Nerissa Hart played several roles and sang a well-crooned, a cappella version of a song in another scene. Ryan Driscoll was back this time as Leonato, Claudio, and Don Pedro. She adeptly used a cardboard screen with holes cut out for faces (like the kind you find in amusement parks) but with different hair color as she popped in and out of character.
Sarah Yarborough used her pool and various head coverings to play four different characters discussing local gossip and eavesdropping. (I envied her the pool.) In the final scene of Act II, Benedict and Beatrice engage in a verbal joust that is the sign that the two will eventually end up together. The barbs were delivered with finesse by Jenna Berk as Beatrice and Danny Crackley as Benedict. It left the viewing intrigued and anxious for ACT III that will be presented next week. Music was composed and is played by Jeff Raab behind the Welcome beginning of all the acts with his song, “Sigh No More.”
Kathleen Akerley as Dogberry with friends
Again, in Act III, the actors stretched their creative muscle to try to create a light comedic touch to the rom/com.
I enjoyed Kellie Honey as Beatrice hiding in an actual rose bush while she eavesdropped on Hero (Aviel Honey), Ursula (Kellie) and Margaret (Kellie, again) as the Act began.
Suzy Alden played Beatrice, Hero and Ursula using different accents, including a Southern drawl for Ursula which helped distinguish the roles.
Using a Zoom-like screen Bess Kaye played Leonato, James Finley played Don Pedro, Erin Denman was Claudio and Daniel Prillaman was Benedict as they deftly moved the intrigue and comedy.
While Darren Marquardt performed the role of Don Pedro, two adorable pugs (Mabel and Cane) played Claudio and Don Juan. Marquardt voiced the roles for the dogs. It helped add to the wonderful mayhem.
Some things worked better than others. The viewer needs to keep in mind that the performers are often working alone with only what they have in their homes. So, all efforts are valiant. Kathleen Akerley played the classic comic character, Dogberry and voiced several other roles where she used a roll of toilet paper, a couple of Pez dispensers and other figurines as pseudo-puppets. She opened the scene in a bathtub, but when she turned on the shower, it was hard to hear the dialogue. Some great comic lines literally went down the drain.
The ladies wedding party, where Rachel Felstein played Beatrice, Ursula and Margaret and also used her cat. Amina. She animated the cat’s mouth to “talk,” using her own voice for the lines. It worked well, and I appreciated choosing to make the characters modern young women.
The last scene, another comic classic with Dogberry, was voiced by Dylan Arredondo using playing cards for the characters. It got a little too confusing, and if I was not following the text, I would not have been able to follow it at all. Again, many of the humorous lines got lost, pardon the pun, in the shuffle, mainly, because much of Dogberry’s humor are his malaprops. Dogberry was such a popular character that malaprops are often call “dogberryisms” or just plain “dogberries.” I was anticipating these scenes with Dogberry and felt a bit let down.
Act IV will begin next Friday. I am curious how each scene will be handled. So, far the production has been a refreshing new look on a classic.
One might wonder what Bill Shakespeare would have thought about his work being done with smart phones and other modern devices. I think he would say, “All the world’s a stage,” whether your world is a theatre, a lawn, or the place you hang your hat. So, if you miss the theatre, Pandemic Theatre will give you a fix with this very creative production.
Want to start watching now and not miss previously shown acts? When you purchase a ticket, you will be sent a link to a YouTube playlist of short videos from every Act that has been released to date (for example, you can still watch Act I even though Act II is being released this week). Using this link, you can watch the videos anytime and as many times as you want. You do not need to purchase a new ticket for each week of the release (there are multiple dates listed on the ticketing website to reflect the dates when the batches of new videos are uploaded). To watch each week’s new videos, check back on the playlist on Fridays after 7 pm through June 12, 2020. Pandemic Theatre will also resend the YouTube link to ticket holders each Friday once the new videos are uploaded.
You can access through Facebook or Eventbrite ticket link. The charge is $10 for tickets, but there are Pay-What-You-Can and complimentary ticket options for those who cannot afford a full price ticket. All proceeds go directly to the artists. Pandemic Theatre asks that you please consider making a donation to Theatre Washington’s Taking Care Fund and support local DMV actors and artists who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Running Time for Act I: 30 minutes
Running Time for Act II: 35 minutes
The acts will be released every Friday by 7pm EST from May 15-June 12: May 15—Act I, May 22—Act II, June, 29—Act III, June 5—Act IV, June 12—Act V.