You’d think that John Holdren would’ve had enough of silly love songs. Two summers ago at Four County Players, Holdren’s cast pushed the playfulness of Twelfth Night past saccharine into a welcome sugar high by breaking from the script for pop song asides—“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” or a track from Magnetic Fields’ epic 69 Love Songs album.
But in the gendered face-off that begins Holdren’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, the director and his cast break the jukebox’s bank. The string trio that opens the show becomes a backing band for an effeminate version of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love,” interrupted minutes later with Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” sung by guess who? The gals respond with “Shop Around,” wait through the male cast’s retort (Flight of the Conchords’ “Something Special for the Ladies”), then deliver their Top 40 Kiss of Death. Dudes of Much Ado, you can do many things, but nobody follows Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
How much new blood can you pump from the happy-sad-happy heart of pop radio? Well, every local production of a Shakespearean comedy poses the same question. In fact, tasked with searching his own beatbox for original feelings about spunky Beatrice (Sara Holdren), Benedick (Scott Keith) reaches a classic pop impasse. “I have tried,” he groans. “I can find no rhyme to ‘lady’ but ‘baby.’”
All the single ladies, put your hands up! Beatrice (Sarah Holdren) tells Benedick (Scott Keith) to put a ring on it in Much Ado About Nothing at The Hamner Theater.
But for the second consecutive summer, Holdren and his cast find a bit of shake, rattle ’n’ roll in Shakespeare—perhaps a bit more than with Twelfth Night. For starters, Much Ado is a more nuanced comedy: What begins as a sort of Taming of the Shrew II changes key quickly, as the “opposites attract” dynamic of Beatrice and Benedick is resolved easily, but the simple match of Claudio (David Straughn) and Hero (Emma Duncan) goes brutally haywire at the hands of the nihilistic Don John (Jon Cobb).
And Holdren’s merry band comprises some fine local players. Sara Holdren may be the director’s daughter, but she’s an incontestable choice as Beatrice, and Keith (a Live Arts regular, better with each production) both earnestly and winningly plays the Harry to her Sally. Robert Wray charms as Leonato, both the perpetrator of an innocent gag and the victim of a more vicious attack—hamming it up like William Shatner as the former, then playing morose to its Paul Giamatti depths. And from his first subtle, contemptible yawn to his final exit, Cobb’s performance as Don John is wicked. His eyebrows seem to curl upwards into horns; he’s the anti-Prospero, an Agent of Ado who keeps the play from being, simply, About Nothing.
It’s a big production for the black box at The Hamner Theater—a rich ensemble, and a deep-but-giddy song selection. The show’s final song is an encore that plays out a bit like a bonus reel at the end of a film. It draws attention to the small satisfactions that make a bigger impact of a comedy standard, the parts that make a show pop. “You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs,” sang Paul McCartney. “But I look around me and see it isn’t so.”