It’s wonderful how graceful Shakespeare’s words sound when declaimed in a lilting Southern accent. The two seem made for each other, which is actually no surprise when you think about it. A well-to-do, large Southern clan is probably about the closest thing to the leisured Italian noble families that the Bard was so fond of visiting in his comedies. At least, this is how it seems in Holy City Shakespeare’s (HCS) excellent debut of Much Ado About Nothing.
Directed by HCS’s founder and Artistic and Education Director Laura Rose, the production is a shining example of just how serious theater can be in Charleston — serious as in professional, not as in somber. From the technical aspects to the acting, excellence reigned on stage at the Sottile Theater, offering a promising glimpse of what Holy City Shakespeare has in store for our city.
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s funniest and most accessible plays, centering on a troop of soldiers who come to visit the wealthy Italian nobleman Leonato and, in the course of things, cause general mischief. Two potential marriages appear: Claudio to Leonato’s sweet, fair daughter Hero (that one gets wrapped up pretty quickly), and the much more interesting possibility of sworn bachelor Captain Benedick to the sharp-tongued, witty Beatrice. Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio enlist the help of the household in tricking Benedick and Beatrice into falling in love with each other, and, after a few bumps engineered by the scheming villain Don John, all ends well.
In Rose’s version, Italy is replaced with a small South Carolina town at the end of World War II (hence the Southern accents, though not everyone uses them). Although it takes a moment to reconcile the 1940s costumes with the seventeenth-century language, once you’ve shifted your brain into “Shakespeare mode” the shift works magnificently. The whole trope is completely convincing, which is due entirely to the actors: each one understands exactly what he or she is saying, which unfortunately isn’t always the case with Shakespeare productions. Great credit goes to Rose, HCS, and the actors for holding themselves to such high standards.
Though there wasn't a weak link in the cast (which includes City Paper contributor Michael Smallwood, as Claudio), special recognition must go to Craig Trow, who played Benedick, and Emily Wilhoit, as Beatrice. Trow and Wilhoit gave their characters all the spark and life that their witty wordsmithing requires, and managed the complete absurdity of Benedick and Beatrice’s situation with charm and innocence.
The only fault of the evening was that, in the first scene, the actors seemed almost too comfortable with their lines; it’s a good thing, on the whole, but they spoke a little too quickly, as if they were speaking regular American English (again, a good thing really), and it made for a confusing first few minutes. With such an auspicious beginning, it’s exciting to think about how Holy City Shakespeare will develop. Within a few years, I’ll bet that we won’t even be able to remember a time when HCS didn’t exist — they’ve got all the makings of a beloved Charleston institution.