Director: Actors are the real story in Hilberry’s Much Ado About Nothing
Director: Hilberry show is about more than Shakespeare
by Lawrence B. Johnson/ Special to The Detroit News
Most people would say Shakespeare’s romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing is about two very smart characters, Beatrice and Benedick, who don’t have sense enough to know they’re in love with each other.
But stage director Matthew Earnest, who’s shepherding the graduate student production of Much Ado at Wayne State University’s Hilberry Theatre that opens Friday, insists the play is really about the young actors themselves.
“You always need for the actors to express their own history, their own emotional lives,” says Earnest, an associate artist at Germany’s English Theatre Berlin and at the University of Delaware. “The trick is to get a young actor out of the student-teacher dynamic so they can find the (interpretive) answers within them.
“The young people here are immersed in a hard-core conservatory-style training program, so a lot of my work is to get them to jump the fence into a kind of freedom where they aren’t thinking so much about technique.”
In Much Ado About Nothing, the central story of prickly pears Beatrice and Benedick — Vanessa Sawson and Dave Toomey, whom Earnest says he would put on any stage in the world in these roles — plays out in parallel with a much darker thread: The illegitimate Don John is bent on vengeance for what he feels has been wrongly taken from him. Thus comedy and dramatic turmoil go hand in glove.
“Part of what I try to bring (as director) is the life experience some of these young people have not known — personal loss, cruelty, violence,” Earnest says. “We have to make that real. Academics and scholars have deemed ‘Much Ado’ a comedy, but it’s far more complicated than that. It plays lots of notes on the piano. In this (rehearsal) process, we’ve all been surprised and delighted and scared by the places it goes. Violence followed by comedy — it’s much like life.”
Then, of course, there’s the pure Bard factor, says Earnest.
“Shakespeare is revered as a great literary icon. It’s intimidating.
“This is an exceptionally bright group of actors here, but while some have been steeped in the classics, others have not. Some find the crazy language a problem. Some are challenged by the candid sexual discussion or the social order and politics of the time. Making theater is always a complicated and difficult thing. Doing these old plays can be especially complex.
“Every writer poses challenges. It’s just that with Shakespeare it’s all about the sounds and rhythms of the words. The actor has nothing but the language to make everything happen.”
The heady ride of Much Ado lies in watching the reluctant, warring lovers discover a common language, the director says.
“It’s quite thrilling to see these two characters find each other in a magical way, almost like a fable.” Earnest pauses, then adds: “We know it isn’t going to be a quiet household.”
Much Ado About Nothing
8 p.m. Friday, through Nov. 19
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
Call (313) 577-2972
Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic. firstname.lastname@example.org