Head Trick is returning to its roots with a classic Shakespeare in the park. As the opener of their 2018-19 season, themed “Making a New World,” this is the first of three forays into reimagining classic plays as escapism, as seen from the perspective of women, the LGBT community and people of color, rather than the straight white male audiences the playwrights had in mind. How do they reimagine Much Ado About Nothing, a play that is largely about cuckoldry and women’s infidelity (at the time, “nothing” was a slang word for “vagina”), with a feminist approach? The key is to take the most misogynist character and genderbend him, thus making the central pair a lesbian couple.
While Head Trick is no stranger to Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) in the park, this is their first time at Roger Williams National Memorial in downtown Providence. It is a location with a lot of history; as a park ranger explains before the show, it is the place where Roger Williams originally founded Providence. While convenient, it is also a terribly congested area, especially on a Friday or Saturday night — and especially when it coincides with a WaterFire, which it did the night I went. At least only a few lines were swallowed up by passing traffic, and on the plus side, the weather was perfect.
The play centers on two couples. First is Claudio and Hero, a fairytale, unconflicted, love-at-first-sight kind of relationship until Claudio is convinced by the prince Don Pedro’s villainous brother, Don John, that Hero is unfaithful and publicly shames her at the altar. Both are immature and compliant, deferring to others’ judgment without question, though both undergo something of a transformation by the end. Though the characters themselves are rather uninteresting, their relationship is sweetly portrayed by Geoffrey Besser and Valearie Kane. Second is Benedick and Beatrice, a much more dynamic relationship that grows from hate to love with help from a trick played by Claudio and Hero and their friends and family. Portrayed by Hannah Heckman-McKenna and Christine Pavao, respectively, their budding relationship is a delight to watch develop from their war of wits to begrudging confessions of love.
Many a Shakespeare trope is present along the way, including mistaken identities, a scheming friar, a faked death and a bumbling band of fools in the form of the watch led by Dogberry (Stuart Wilson), who, though malapropism-prone and incompetent, manages to bring the villains to justice. Along with the watch’s shenanigans and misspeakings, there is plenty of comedy afoot. On the one hand is Claudio, Don Pedro (Devon Andrews) and Hero’s father, Leonato (David Adams Murphy), peering through literal bushes as they watch Benedick realize her feelings for Beatrice (triumphantly high-fiving their success), and on the other is Benedick hiding among the audience while eavesdropping. There is also a fair amount of audience interaction, with Hero’s waiting-gentlewomen attendants (Gabriella Sanchez and Ricci Mann) handing out invitations to her wedding and a dance party at the end.
The set is rather minimalist, with only a flower garland held up by pillars (which the cast seemed to struggle to assemble). Likewise, the costuming is modern wear, so save for a masquerade scene with some interesting costumes and some fantastic fake mustaches on members of the watch, there is not much to remark on. Musical accompaniment from Christine Warren on violin and Sherry Romanzi on guitar adds to the experience.
Interestingly, this is not the first time Much Ado has been adapted to include a lesbian couple; a recent young adult novel changed Claudio to Claudia. Considering that Benedick and Beatrice are undoubtedly the more interesting couple, this production’s choice to genderbend Benedick makes much more sense. It’s the couple the audience is made to root for all along. And given that Beatrice was already a radically gender stereotype-defying character, making Benedick a woman brings the count of strong female characters up to two. While the play as a whole still would not be mistaken for a feminist work as a whole for all of its slutshaming, talk on women’s infidelity and Hero’s lack of agency, this genderbending further improves on an already much-beloved couple.
Head Trick Theatre’s production of Much Ado About Nothing runs through Aug 12 at Roger Williams National Memorial. For more information, visit headtricktheatre.org.