‘Much Ado’: Shakespeare like it used to be
August 13, 2008
ASPEN ” When local theater troupe the Hudson Reed Ensemble staged the violent “Julius Caesar” last summer in its Shakespeare in the Park series, the play ended in more bloodshed than anticipated. Kent Reed, playing the traitorous Brutus, accidentally stabbed himself instead of Caesar during the climactic murder scene. The performance ended in a near-tragedy as Reed, the company’s artistic director, was taken to the hospital.
So this year, when guest director Ruth Leon suggested a comedy, Reed was entirely amenable. Leon is directing the Hudson Reed Ensemble in a production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” ” no knives, no political assassinations, lots of laughs and romance ” in the current Shakespeare in the Park offering. The play, condensed to 70 minutes, opened last week and shows Wednesday and Saturday evenings at 6:30 p.m. on the Galena Plaza, behind the Pitkin County Library.
“When she said ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ I said, ‘Great, right up our alley,'” said Reed of Leon’s choice of plays.
“No one’s going to the hospital in this one,” added Leon.
What attracted Leon to “Much Ado About Nothing” wasn’t the absence of blood and killing, but the absence of fantasy. She says that it is among Shakespeare’s most straightforward creations, easily recognizable to fans of the romantic comedy genre of films.
The story focuses on a young couple, Claudio and Hero (played by Gerald DeLisser and Logan Walters), who are to be married, and the sparring enemies, Beatrice and Benedick (Cathy Markle and Mike Monroney) whom Claudio and Hero try to bring together. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other works, the play focuses on humans rather than witches, ghosts and fairies prancing about in the woods.
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“It’s very straightforward because it deals with very direct human emotions. And there are no fantasies, no spirits. Just humans dealing with human emotions,” said Leon. “It’s quite difficult to get people in theater ” though not film ” to suspend their disbelief in spirits and fantasy, the stuff that is not real. People get this immediately. And the people are likable, particularly the older couple, Beatrice and Benedick.”
While Reed was immediately agreeable to “Much Ado About Nothing,” Leon wasn’t so quick to sign on to direct a play at all. A theater critic, biographer and director, Leon splits her time between homes in New York City and her native London, with summers reserved ” over the last 30 years ” for Aspen, where she bought a home two decades ago. Summers are also reserved for vacation, which for Leon means tennis, concert-going, socializing ” and no directing. But Reed was persuasive and continued to ask Leon until she said yes.
“I direct for the fun of it. And, also, because I think it’s important for a critic to understand the process, how hard it is,” said Leon, who is the principal theater critic for British weekly magazine The Lady and a feature writer for Playbill, the magazine distributed in New York theaters. (She has also written biographies of Gene Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and, last year, George Gershwin, with another on Cole Porter on the way.) “And the text, to understand the words ” particularly when, as with Shakespeare, it’s an archaic text,” she added.
Most of Leon’s previous directing gigs have been cabaret performances, which tend to be small-scale productions featuring one performer. As she put it, “Most people don’t even know that there are directors in cabaret.” So the opportunity to direct a more or less full-length play ” this version of “Much Ado” has been whittled down to a little over an hour ” and one by Shakespeare to boot, caused her to see this job as more fun than toil.
“If you have spent 40 years writing, as I have, of Shakespeare, loving the fun and the excitement of Shakespeare, you want to learn it from the inside,” said Leon. “This is a chance to work with actors on a very well-known text.”
It is also a chance to work with a type of venue ” a mostly anonymous and unadorned space between the library and the jail that can only charitably be called a park ” that Leon is unaccustomed to. But instead of seeing the limitations, she sees it as authentic, given the material. Shakespeare, she noted, started out in the outdoors, usually in the open spaces surrounding inns.
“We’re doing ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ the way Shakespeare would have done it,” she said. “Shakespeare had no lights, had no ability to make a space that was separate from the audience. There were no wings; the actors were on stage all the time, whether they were in a scene or not, and that’s how we’re doing it. It’s very Shakespearean ” and it’s in full daylight, just the way he did it.”
It is as much of an education for Reed. Since founding the Hudson Reed Ensemble three years ago, Reed himself has directed the vast majority of the organization’s productions, which have ranged from the Vaudeville-like “Melange” to the televised “Aspen Soap” to the Arthur Miller political parable “The Crucible.” But for last spring’s production of David Mamet’s Hollywood critique “Speed-the-Plow,” Reed brought in Chicagoan Charles Kouri to direct while Reed took the stage. He is doing a similar thing with “Much Ado,” playing the governor Leonato while leaving the directing to Leon.
“They’re out and about in the real world,” said Reed of the outside directors, “and bring expertise to what is basically a resort town. Our actors can be guided and nourished by their knowledge, their worldliness.”
Leon tells her actors that if they want to learn from Shakespeare, all they need to do is read what he wrote. Leon also has directed dramas, mostly contemporary works, and she finds them laden with subtext and far more difficult to understand than Shakespeare, even with the language divide.
“I tell them, all you need to do is trust Shakespeare,” said Leon, whose late husband, Sheldon Morley, was also a biographer, director and critic, with a specialty in playwright Noël Coward. “He tells you all you need to know. You only have to listen to Shakespeare. He was a master craftsman; he formulated his plays like a perfect piece of carpentry. His great plays are absolutely direct. He knew exactly how people acted, what they really do, rather than what we want them to do.”