For Emerson Stage, it#039;s Much Ado About the 1960s

William Shakespeare lived during the tail end of a time of revolution: the Renaissance. Never before had the modern world seen so much culture, art and beauty, and he was in the heart of it as a citizen of Elizabethan England. More than 300 years later, the 1960s brought on another revolution. Rock and roll ruled the airways and instead of men in tights writing sonnets in iambic pentameter, guys like Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg became the poets of the age.

With those comparisons, it would make sense that one of Shakespeare’s plays, iMuch Ado About Nothing/i, would transfer flawlessly from its original setting of 1600s Messina, Italy to 1966 Messina University, a small liberal-arts college in New England.

Director Maureen Shea has decided to undertake this task and Emerson Stage will be performing her vision of a more modern iMuch Ado/i. It will run at the Semel Theater Feb. 26 – March 1.

“I feel that they were both times of turmoil and they were both times of change,” Shea said about her decision to move the play’s setting and time.

Shea said, 1966 was definitely a time for change, but the ideals of the oppressive 1950s were still the law of the land. It was like “one foot in the previous era and one foot in the what’s-to-come,” she said.

In Shakespeare’s iMuch Ado About Nothing/i, the action circles around two couples: Claudio (iBeacon/i arts and entertainment editor Harry Vaughn, junior BFA acting) and Hero (Jessica Naimy, junior BFA musical theater) who fall in love at first sight, and Beatrice (Katherine Wright, junior BA theatre studies) and Benedick (Nick Sulfaro, sophomore BFA Acting), who both oppose the idea of marriage but find themselves tricked into falling for each otherby their friends. There is also a constable named Dogberry (Daniel Hainsworth, senior BFA musical theater) who is trying to keep the peace in the town of Messina.

Set to iconic music of the age, including tunes by The Beatles, The Mamas The Papas, The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin, Shea has added generation-defining elements while making very few changes to the plotline.

In her adaption, Claudio and Benedick are no longer soldiers, but rather football players on the team at Messina U. The character of Don Pedro (Nick Ronan, senior BA double major in acting and film, 2009) is no longer the Prince of Aragon, but rather the University’s football coach. Leonato (Ian Flynn, MA Theatre Education 2009), who originally was the governor of Messina, is the president of the college and his daughter, Hero, and niece, Beatrice, are also students at Messina University. Dogberry is now a member of the campus security named Securitas.

“You got a bunch of guys whose idea of a good weekend is drinking a lot and sleeping with a lot of girls,” Shea says of the beginning of the play. It’s only when Claudio falls in love with the serious Hero that the action begins. They decide to marry but President Don Pedro’s evil brother Don John (Sean Elias, senior MA in theatre education), the local college dive bar owner who is jealous of Claudio and angry of his more successful brother, has other plans. He hatches a plot that will cause Claudio to become suspicious that his intended is not faithful to him. The plan unfolds exactly how Don John expects and, on the day of their wedding, Claudio publicly humiliates Hero because he has been led to believe she has cuckolded him.

Since we are no longer talking about Elizabethan England with corsets, knickers and elaborate wigs, the actors will perform in short skirts, blazers and varsity jackets.

“It would look like a Shakespeare museum and I’m not interested in Shakespeare museum.” Shea said. Since 1966 was a time where revolution was just bubbling under the surface, she decided to include two activists in the ensemble who are the only characters wearing blue jeans.

“Shakespearean plays were performed in contemporary dress,” said Shea of the original costume design. “They were wearing basically their own clothing.”

One thing however that will stay the same: The script is “absolutely Shakespeare.” Noting that she is a stickler for text, Shea decided to keep the original language of iMuch Ado/i. With the contrast of the modern dress and not-so-modern jargon, Shea worked with her actors on making the Shakespearean speech as natural as possible.

She hopes people will see the seriousness of the comedy, especially with Hero’s situation. Hero is a woman who has done no wrong and yet, her betrothed has heard from another man that she has been unfaithful and does not even bother to question her on it. He decides she’s impure and calls her out at their wedding, humiliating her. In the 1960s, women were just starting to throw off the stereotype that they were either saints or sluts, which provides a great background for Shea’s vision.

As for the actors in the play, Shea says they have found it fascinating to portray people who are now their parents’ age. She hopes more students will come to the play with their parents and that it will encourage a lively debate at dinner afterwards.

“I think all plays happen in the now no matter when you set them; I think the audience brings that to play,” she said.