Arts theater review

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble performs modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Set in 1970s post-Stonewall New York City, the play captures themes of empowerment and feminism.

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MIT Shakespeare Ensemble rehearses for their performance of Much Ado About Nothing, Thursday, 26 October.

Much Ado About Nothing
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Maddie Roth
Kresge Little Theater
October 27th, 28th, 29th; November 2nd, 3rd, and 4th

I’ve read my fair share of Shakespeare plays (both comedies and tragedies), and I’m always a fan of adaptations that seek to interpret the original text with a modern twist. So when the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble announced that they would be performing Much Ado About Nothing this semester, I knew I had to see it for myself.

The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble is a community of students who share an interest in theater, specifically Shakespearean works. Every semester, they perform a full-length play and put together the entire show themselves: costumes, props, and script. The ensemble’s production of Much Ado About Nothing ran for six showings on October 27th, 28th, and 29th and on November 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. I had the opportunity to attend the closing night show on November 4th, and it was an excellent experience. 

Much Ado About Nothing, originally written by William Shakespeare in 1598 and 1599, is a witty, banter-filled comedy following the love lives of two couples: Beatrice and Benedick and Claudio and Hero. Beatrice and Benedick are both tricked into believing the other is in love with them, which leads to them actually falling in love, while Hero faces a false accusation regarding her modesty that leads to the dissolution of (but eventual happy ending to) her engagement with Claudio. The original play is set in Messina, on the island of Sicily, but the ensemble chose to set the show in 1970s New York City, post-Stonewall, in order to explore the concepts of internalized homophobia and second-wave feminism. 

This proved to be an excellent choice. The original play already explores the themes of gender roles and empowerment, but by portraying Benedick as a girl and exploring how Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship would change if they were a same-sex couple, this version of the play was able to dig deep into some difficult topics with grace and lightness. 

Speaking of Benedick, Claire Wang ‘27’s performance was excellent. Benedick had some great comedic moments in the show: one such example was when Beatrice reluctantly invites her to dinner and Benedick, in her love-struck fantasy, decides to interpret Beatrice’s irritation as concealing her true feelings. Beatrice, portrayed by Kiersten Mitzel ‘24, also did a fantastic job. In general, Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship was heartwarming with moments of both hilarity and emotion. 

I also really appreciated Hero (played by Susan Hong ‘27)’s character arc. Hero is introduced to us almost entirely silently. For the first half of the play, she basically accepts whatever fate is handed to her; sure, she’s in love with Claudio and agrees to marry him, but we never really see her take an active role in theirrelationship. This changes when Claudio leaves her at the altar for an offense she never actually committed. I loved seeing Hero stand up for herself afterwards, especially during the scene of Claudio’s second wedding in which Hero is revealed to be the bride. 

Much Ado About Nothing is also plain hilarious. The main villain, Don John, has one goal and one goal only: to stir up trouble, which Ellie Winkler ‘25 does masterfully. All of the interactions between Don John, her accomplices, and the police had the audience in stitches. The ineptitude of the police combined with Don John’s flair for the dramatic and the accomplices’ complete bewilderment was comedy gold. 

Plus, there was quite a bit of camaraderie between the actors during the play itself. Several of them broke character during Hero and Claudio’s wedding scene, which in turn brought the audience to laughter. I later learned that there had been several pranks played on the cast as part of a closing night tradition for the students for whom this would be their last show. There’s a scene in which Beatrice juggles oranges on stage impromptu in an attempt to impress Benedick, and Don Pedro appears on stage in a crown and sunglasses, to the amusement of the other cast members. This explained the breaks in character: none of the cast members were expecting these rather comical changes. You could really tell that the Ensemble as a whole is a tight-knit community.

Ultimately, MIT Shakespeare Ensemble kept the audience riveted for two and a half hours, a difficult feat in and of itself, but only made more so by how complicated Shakespearean works are. The language is difficult to decipher, both on a page and especially when spoken live. Much of the vocabulary is outdated, and there are idioms and turns of phrase that have since gone out of use. You didn’t need to understand the language to understand the themes or the story: the cast’s acting was enough to propel the action forward. It was truly an excellent performance.