‘Much Ado’ takes shape as ambitious venture
While there’s much ado about the newly renovated, renamed Charity Randall Theatre, director W. Stephen Coleman didn’t choose its opening production as a commentary.
Coleman, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh, chose Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” because he believes it “may be the richest comedic play ever written, exploring the diversity of human interaction: mature and immature romantic love, friendship, honesty, fidelity, betrayal and even parental responsibility.”
The play marks William Shakespeare’s return to the former home of the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, staged in the Foster auditorium each summer from 1980 through 1995.
Set in Sicily, the plot concerns the effect that deliberate lies and eavesdropping have on two couples — one young and one mature. In one case, the eavesdropping and misinformation brings the mature couple together: Beatrice and Benedick, eternally engaged in verbal sparring, are each made to believe that the other is in love and come to realize that they actually are. In the other, the young Claudio rejects his bride Hero and leaves her for dead at the altar when Don John sets up a situation that makes Claudio believe he has seen Hero betray him on the eve of their wedding.
“I realized this play was such a good suiting to our resources in the acting pool. It had real potential,” Coleman says. “I said from the start that if we’re going to do something on this scale, we need to pull them all together.”
Coleman cast five Department of Theatre Arts teaching artists in key roles. Bryn Jameson, a teaching artist since 1999, will play Beatrice. Her character’s wits and wry humor duel with that of Benedick, played by Doug Mertz. E. Bruce Hill has been cast in the comic role of Dogberry. Doug Pona will appear as Hero’s father, Leonato, and Robert C.T. Steele will portray the evil, scheming Don John.
The cast of 31 mixes student and former student actors with the teaching artists, such as S. Zachary Cooper, who will play Claudio, opposite Marla L. Nathans as Hero, Matthew Gaydos as Don Pedro, Gwendolen Morton as Margaret, and Adam Hinkle as Borachio.
The production is also something of a homecoming and gathering of those who have served the department over the years.
Coleman tapped Attilio “Buck” Favorini to serve as the production’s dramaturge. Favorini was the founding chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at Pitt, as well as the founder and producing director of the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival from 1980 through ’92. Henry Heymann, who taught in Pitt’s theater department for 25 years and designed sets for most of the shows during that time, is designing the set.
Coleman has been working on music for the show with composer Christine Frezza, a department alumna who served a decade as composer for the Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival and is in her 19th year as composer and music director for the Utah Shakespearean Festival. Other returning alumni include choreographer Renee Ann Keil, and musical supervisor and performer Stephen Pellegrino.
From the first, Coleman envisioned a production that explored a broad range of emotions. He was somewhat dismayed when, after he began planning the show last year, he learned that Pittsburgh Public Theater artistic director Ted Pappas announced he would open his season with “Much Ado About Nothing.”
“Pappas said it’s a significant enough play that it’s worth two productions in one year,” Coleman says. “Ted’s and my approach are significantly different. I think it will be a joy to see both. There is humor, but I want to be conscious of the dark side.”
Coleman set his production in the 1930s, as the soldiers at the start of the play are returning from the Italian campaign against Abyssinia. “You have either the imminent or overt presence of Fascists,” he says.
As he planned the production, Coleman kept seeing the image of a dancer. “It was as though there was a parallel world to the play’s world in which this dancer appeared.” To fit that image into the play, Coleman decided to add dances. The play calls for two dances and implies a third, but he wasn’t sure how to make them fit.
“The dance most revelatory of human relations is the tango,” he says. “Suddenly tango and dance as a metaphor intruded as an examination of male/female relations. … We’re using it as though the tango was just introduced into Messina, and everyone is trying to learn it.”
That led to commissioning Frezza to write music and adding six dancers who serve as dance instructors to the other characters in the play.
Coleman acknowledges this production is a lot more complex than the average show created by the department.
“This is a big show, and we’ve pulled out all the stops on this one,” he says. “I think it will showcase us very well.”
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Opening weekend events