Theater preview: PTC creates 'highly fantastical world' for 'Much Ado About Nothing'

Published: Saturday, Feb. 15 2014 1:00 p.m. MST

Rebecca Watson stars as Beatrice, left, and Ryder Smith as Benedick in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Much Ado About Nothing."

Alex Weisman, Pioneer Theatre Company

Matt August can easily use pop singer Lady Gaga, director Steven Spielberg and playwright William Shakespeare in a single sentence.

“Shakespeare is great entertainment. What Shakespeare was doing on stage is like what Lady Gaga is doing on stage, or like what Spielberg does with films,” the Pioneer Theatre Company director says. “I want people to recognize that Shakespeare was revolutionary. He was a master dramatist. Shakespeare is actually really cool.”

In PTC’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” August aims at staging the play in a way that will be widely accessible, a feat that he recognizes is not always accomplished.

“Particularly in American culture, there is a stigma about Shakespeare, and people are somewhat afraid of his plays. And they are afraid of them because of the way they learned Shakespeare in middle school and high school. Somewhere along the way, Shakespeare got a bad rap. Also, there are productions that don’t quite engage the imagination in the way they could,” he says.

“When I approach Shakespeare, I like to put his plays in a non-realistic context. If people want to see ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ done with realism, they can rent the Kenneth Branagh film and they can certainly rent the new Joss Whedon version, which is in modern dress and completely modern and completely realistic. But to me, that puts walls around what Shakespeare can be.”

One of the Bard’s best-loved romantic comedies, “Much Ado About Nothing” is about simple misunderstandings that turn into serious accusations, particularly when jealousy and deceit are involved. Two anti-romantic wits, Benedick and Beatrice, who profess to hate each other, are forced by their friends’ trickery to admit their true feelings as they help save the wedding of his fellow soldier Claudio and her cousin, a young girl named Hero.

August says “Much Ado About Nothing” at PTC is staged in a “highly fantastical world,” which he describes as “the Arthurian world meets the fantasy world of Disney princesses.”

While this approach may at first seem unconventional, August’s similar productions have earned critical acclaim.

According to a review in the Los Angeles Times, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre “was given a lusciously loopy staging by the inexhaustibly inventive Matt August.”

A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune said, “To my immense astonishment ... director August and Ford’s Theatre have created a very Victorian ‘Christmas Carol’ as different from everything else I’ve seen as the Starship Enterprise is from all the airliners at O’Hare.”

As part of this inventive creativity, August has cast three local youth actors — Mia Bagley, Zoe Heiden and Brigham Inkley — as the bumbling Night Watchmen, roles generally played by adult actors. “The child actors are hilarious and adorable,” August says. “They get all the comedy of the play.”

The guards roam the city to keep order and peace and operate under direction of the clownish constable Dogberry, played by local favorite Max Robinson, who has appeared in more than 100 PTC productions.

The other actors with Utah ties in “Much Ado About Nothing” are Austin Archer, Alexander Eltzroth, Terence Goodman, Amos Omer, Marcella Pereda, Bryce Edward Peterson, Miles David Romney and Marza Warsinske.

If you go ...

What: “Much Ado About Nothing”

Where: Pioneer Theatre Company

When: Feb. 21-March 8

How much: $25-$44 in advance and $5 more when purchased the day of the performance

Tickets: 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org

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