Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
Steven Wilson’s new adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Pittsburgh Playhouse takes risks – and reaps the rewards. Wilson not only wrote the adaptation, but he directs the production. Wilson’s adaptation takes place in World War II-era Italy after the Italians have allied with the U.S. He unites the former enemies via America’s favorite pastime: baseball.
The baseball metaphor extends beyond the stage. Wilson proves a capable manager of this theatrical team. Wilson effectively wrangles a large ensemble that lets the leads shine while enabling memorable moments for the broader cast. When the newly engaged Claudio (Jordan Marie McMillan) and Hero (Bailey Wilson) dreamily dance in center stage, Benedick (Evans Malkin) and Beatrice (Morgan Snowden) stand downtrodden on opposing sides of the dance floor, unhappy bookends. Wilson thoughtfully utilizes the stage to magnify visual contrast between the two couples. McMillan and Wilson have a slightly stilted quality to their romantic relationship, suggesting a discomfort at the gender-blind casting that pairs two women as an opposite-gender couple. They’re stronger in their non-romantic scenes, and it’s still a nice flipping of the script on Shakespearean times when the stage was occupied by solely male actors. Malkin finds just the right swagger, and the red-headed Snowden is fiery, making the pair memorably shine as Benedick and Beatrice.
The play opens memorably. The actors silently and hypnotically move behind a screen with grainy black and white World War II imagery projected onto it. Video designer Antonio Colaruotolo includes silent movie era intertitles that flash up timelines and unspoken dialogue. An Art Deco border around the intertitles adds a lighter touch. It’s a harbinger of the metamorphosis from the darkness of war to the lightness of sports. Battle scene turns ball game.
But it’s still a jump from one male-dominated world to another. When Hero (Bailey Wilson) steps up to bat, she is immediately turned away. The intertitle dialogue reads “Girls can’t play baseball!” Hero sneaks back in in disguise and subsequently smashes the game-winning home run, belying the words “girls can’t.” In this opening scene, Hero establishes herself as worthy of her namesake. She’s an independently minded woman willing to bend rules that don’t make sense. It’s also the first of many disguises within the play that literalize the metaphorical masks people wear.
However, Steven Wilson’s adaptation falters as his portrayal of Hero is erratic. When her father, Leonato (Cameron Bartelt) turns on her and immediately believes false accusations regarding her sexual impurity, Hero faints. She then complies with a plan conceived by another patriarchal unprogressive, the church’s friar (Pablo J. Uribasterra), to pretend to be dead. Wilson’s adaptation is liberal. He bends gender, updates language, and reorders scenes, which makes his persistent portrayals of patriarchy and its sway problematic, demonstrating the difficulty of defining perimeters within adaptation.
Wilson adds Hero’s mother, Imogen (Mary Shay McWeeney), to the production to create more female roles. Imogen is no tigress, and after a brief opposition, she acquiesces to the male-hatched death ruse. It’s a reminder that adding female headcount is not analogous to creating female voices.
Gianni Downs’ scenic design is simple beauty. The set is highly modular, comprised of seven two-story Italian Renaissance-style towers that can be easily reconfigured. The few times when all seven need to be connected gets slightly unwieldly and does slow down the play’s action. Downs leaves no detail behind as the steeply pitched rooftops even have traditional red Italian shingles. Downs’ stately cream-colored exteriors provide a backdrop for Colaruotolo’s stunning video projections that help differentiate the scenes. When the malicious Don John (Cyrus D. Miller) meets with his coconspirators, an intricate floral pattern irregularly blooms across the wall like blood from a gunshot wound, a visualization of his cunning.
The Conservatory Theatre Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” plays through November 17th at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.