I am currently directing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at the Covey Center for the Arts in Provo. Make that Much Ado About Zombies, since that’s what we’re calling it. On account of us having zombies in it, see? It’s going to be very fun. We open Oct. 24, and you can buy tickets here.
I’m really enjoying the experience. Love the cast, love the design team I’m working with, and of course, it’s a pure joy to work with Shakespeare’s text, even in this high concept, truncated version. What’s been interesting, though, is to see the way in which adding zombies not only clarifies the text, but solves textual problems in the text.
For those of you who don’t know the play, it’s basically a romantic comedy about two couples. Beatrice and Benedick are two smart, witty, clever people who can’t stop sniping at each other. Their friends are amused, in fact, by the funny but nasty things they say to each other every time they meet. And they’re both absolutely determined never to marry. No one they meet will ever be good enough for them. The script does hint that they have a past as well, that they were in a relationship once, and it was horrible. So Don Pedro, Benedick’s boss, decides to play matchmaker. He has a loud conversation with her uncle, which he intends Benedick to overhear, about how much Beatrice is into him. Meanwhile, Hero, Beatrice’s cousin and friend, has a similar overheard conversation about Benedick, about how much he wishes he could tell Beatrice that he loves her. So Beatrice and Benedick, separately, overhear their friends talking about them, and about how each of them is secretly in love with the other, and this brings about their eventual reconciliation and subsequent marriage. It’s fun stuff, and I have the actors to pull it off; both my Beatrice, Ashley Lammi, and my Benedick, Barrett Ogden, are terrific.
But the other love story involves Hero, Beatrice’s cousin, and Claudio, Benedick’s best friend. Theirs is, initially, a more conventional love story. They meet, and Claudio gets Don Pedro to negotiate with her uncle, Leonato, on his behalf, for her hand. Everything works out, until Don John, Don Pedro’s
brother sister (in our production) a real trouble-maker, conspires to destroy their happiness. She falsely accuses Hero of sexual misconduct, on Hero’s wedding day, in a terrible, ugly scene of betrayal and poisonous destruction. Hero faints, and, advised by Friar Francis (one of those all-knowing Shakespeare friars), “dies.” That is, Francis urges B and B to tell folks that Hero has died from the shock of the whole ghastly experience, so at least everyone’ll all feel bad for her. Then, when the dumb-as-a-post constable Dogberry more or less accidentally uncovers the whole plot, Don John is exposed, Claudio forgives Hero, and they’re married, to live happily ever after.
There are two problems with the Hero/Claudio scenario. The first is that Hero and Claudio are underwritten and not-very-interesting characters. Hero is just a sweet young girl, innocent and nice. Claudio is noble, but not very bright. It’s hard to care about their story, except of course to feel bad for Hero, getting caught up in the middle of the nastiest sibling rivalry in Shakespeare, that of Don Pedro and Don John.
But the other problem is more intractable. It makes sense that Claudio would forgive Hero once he realizes she’s innocent of the charges that Don John has made. But why would Hero forgive him? He’s just publicly, in church, in front of all their friends, on her wedding day, accused her of being a whore. I can’t imagine any situation being more personal or more painful. Fine; he learns she’s innocent; he forgives her. But her father, Leonato, is so angry about this false accusation that he challenges Claudio to a duel. Why would Hero be okay subsequently marrying the jerk? Why (to put it in historical context) would her father agree to it? Shakespeare doesn’t explain. He basically glosses over the problem. It’s a comedy; everyone gets married at the end.
Not to brag or anything, but I honestly think we solve both problems. The first problem, the Hero=boring problem, we solve by having her not be boring. Our Hero, a terrific actress named Emily Siwachok, plays Hero with sass and independence and attitude, playing nearly every line sarcastically. She’s a mechanic, a tool-belt wearing blue collar gal, a fixer of machine guns and sharpener of knives. She’s exciting and fun. And our Claudio, Carter Peterson, is one of the first characters to become a zombie. So he’s in conflict in every scene, fighting between his zombie tendencies and his love for Emily. (He’s also a brilliant physical actor).
We added another scene too. Shakespeare wrote song lyrics for the play, including “Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more,” set many times by many composers. We’ve hired a composer of our own, Keaton Anderson, who gave the song a zombie-punk vibe. Our Balthazar, Janiel Miller, sings it, but it really rocks; pretty soon, Claudio has to dance. Hero sees him, and dances too. I mean, what brings two people together better than a love of the same music? Right? (Plus, Carter Peterson’s dancing is a show-stopper).
But the zombie thing really solves the problem of the play’s ending, of Hero’s willingness to forgive Claudio and marry him. Because him being a jerk turns out to not be his fault. He believes Don John and rejects Hero because he’s a zombie. He’s impaired. It wasn’t him doing it. And when she wakes up at her own funeral, she’s a zombie too. But true love conquers all, and when the two of them see each other, they are able to fight off the zombie virus, and embrace.
It’s a lovely moment, if I have to say so myself. But if it works, it’ll be because our concept (Much Ado, with zombies), really works. A good concept will do that for you. Shakespeare wrote magnificent characters, wonderful plays, and the greatest theatrical dialogue of all time. But sometimes plot points don’t, actually, make sense. That presents a challenge for a director and a cast. I’m proud of our solutions here.