A Puzzling Night in Messina
The works of William Shakespeare are extremely versatile. Throughout the generations, they have been done and redone, studied extensively, and have become a major cornerstone of drama education in secondary education and collegiate institutions. This goes beyond Shakespeare merely being an old and traditional playwright; it speaks to his skill as a writer that people, even today, want to continue telling his stories in new and innovative ways. There are many themes related to the human condition that simply never go out of style: betrayal, miscommunication, war, love, and the age old folly of ordinary human error, among a vast array of others. This is why many directors feel the freedom to explore unique ways of presenting the themes and stories Shakespeare has laid out, including through Honolulu’s own Hawaii Shakespeare Festival.
Currently celebrating it’s 18th season, the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival’s second production is MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Jason Kanda and is currently being mounted at Hawaiian Mission Houses through August 17.
It’s a joyous night in Messina as the Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Mover: Judithanne “Joyy” Young, Speaker: Victoria Berg), returns from a triumphant battle with his men in tow, including Count Claudio (Mover: Brooke Jones, Speaker: Emily Steward) and Lord Benedick (Mover: Kaipo Dudoit, Speaker: KoDee Martin). Recieving the party in Messina is the governor Leonato (Mover: Paul Yau, Speaker: Tyler J. Haugen), his daughter Hero (Mover: Chloe Amos, Speaker: Chelsea Cox), and his niece Beatrice (Mover: Jonathan Reyn, Speaker: CJ Valle). As the revelers gather for a celebratory banquet, the Prince’s brother, the “Bastard Prince” Don John (Mover: Catherine Mori, Speaker: Annastasia Fiala-Watkins) hatches an evil scheme of revenge against his brother with his two lackeys, Borachio (Mover: Michelle Martin, Speaker: Haugen) and Conrade (Mover: Kayla Sylvester, Speaker: Cox). The plan involves souring the budding relationship and following engagement of the two young lovers, Hero and Claudio, via a well-executed evening of subterfuge. Running along this plotline is the relationship between Benedick and Beatrice: having been in each other’s lives before, they are now forced to be around each other once again. There is some scorn and repulsion weaved with their witty and playful digs at each other, but Don Pedro, Leonato, Hero, and Claudio all agree they are actually very fitting for each other, and enact their own plan to try and get the two together. A lot of moving pieces are in play in Messina, and it’s anyone’s guess what will happen in this Shakespearean comedy.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is held at the Hawaiian Mission Houses in Honolulu, and it is squarely set outside. The evening I attended, it had rained for quite a bit before the show and a bit during the production. If you’re worried about getting wet, pay attention to the weather forecasts before securing your ticket, and be rest assured the management has contingency plans in the event it gets rained out. There is no set (doesn’t need one, honestly) , and there are bound to be sounds of the city swirling around you. Come in with an open mind, and know that you will be able to hear the actors as they are all speaking into microphones. There is something serene and comforting watching Shakespeare outdoors on a natural stage, especially as the sun goes down. Be sure to grab seats early though- fold out seats on a surface that is not raked means someone can be taller than you and sit in front of you. Those with umbrellas were asked to use them with discretion- an umbrella obstructs a lot, and perhaps it is wise simply to not bring one to the performance.
Kanda’s vision for the production was to split up the lines by a team of vocalists and have them sit and saying the lines while the movers onstage would articulate the lines in a type of “movement score,” which is mapping “the topography of the text and periodically plunge(s) between lines to sort out what isn’t spoken.” This is a bold direction to go in, supported by improvised dance directed by Amos.
There are a few noteworthy performances at work during the evening. The synchronization between Reyn/Valle and Dudoit/Martin is a sight to see, as Dudoit and Reyn seem to capture both the essence of Benedick and Beatrice while remaining connected to their respective voices. Some of the strongest movement comes from Dudoit and Reyn, and they effectively use the stage and their bodies to communicate what is both said and not said. Speaking of syncrhonization, Sharon Garcia Doyle and Serina Dunham’s Dogberry may not have much stage time, but Dunham’s crisp, clear, and motivated movements pair well with Garcia Doyle’s characterization as the hilarious constable. Yau and Haugen deliver a balanced Leonato, and while Yau does not have the exact finesse as some of his castmates, his more reserved yet motivated moves alongside Haugen’s delivery reveal a father who the audience is inclined to follow. Amos and Cox’s Hero communicated the character’s plight well- a woman who was promised love and had it ripped away from her for reasons unbeknownst to her- and succeeded in breathing life and dimension into the character. Meeting them there is Jones and Steward’s Claudio, whose energy is youthful, vibrant, and easily swayed because of the aforementioned youth, and the two bring the young lord to life with truth, grace, and an undeniable charisma.
That being said, strong synchronizations and strong (in the sense that their moves seemed motivated and connected to either the text, the speaker, the emotion, or all three) movers does highlight parts of the cast that do not resonate as strongly. Young and Berg’s Don Pedro seemed to lack a center, with the voice being incongruous with the seemingly erratic and unmotivated movement the two seemed to have agree on for the character. The villain, Don John (Mori, Fiala-Watkins) was also an enigma, as the character seemed to share the same unneeded and unmotivated movements as his brother, but it wasn’t clear why as he is full of resent and angst, something not communicated by his mover at all. Martin and Haugen’s Borachio was a bit too focused on how much of drunkard sexpot her could be, and thus the performance felt one-note throughout the whole evening; Sylvester and Cox’s Conrade felt out of place, as Sylvester’s movements and energy felt disproportionately flat throughout the evening, moreso when next to Borachio.
This was an interesting direction and experiment to strive for. I understand the potential value in separating the voice from the actors, as it can enrich the performance in ways that the audience (and the actors) are not expecting. However, I do not think this was a wholly successful execution. Where there is clarity, motivation, and unity, there is strength, but that only highlights those performances that are unclear, unmotivated, and not united. There are movers that have a leaning or a background in dance and movement, and there are those that do not have that background, and the fact that you can see this disparity distracts from the story being told. I also believe the vocal team has a very huge burden on them. Do not get me wrong, moving onstage all night is physically strenuous and difficult, this I understand. However, as an audience member I would still expect the vocal team to reach emotional peaks and valleys and expect to hear the truth ringing from their voice, separated as they might be. This is a hard obstacle which not everyone could accomplish consistently, though I understand why. There is a lot of emotion tied to certain body movements, and if one is seated then it can prove difficult to articulate the truth and emotional depth one may need. That is not to say the evening was void of any emotional truth and emotional peaks and valleys, it was not. I am saying that it wasn’t consistent, and there were enough moments and beats that were not landing that drew my attention to it.
Is improvised dance the way to go, with improvised being the operative word of the question? I am still thinking about the answer. The performance I watched may have been an anomaly. As a student of improv, there is something attractive about allowing the text and the vocals from night-to-night define your performance and move your body, rather than having a preset choreography. I understand the wealth of discoveries that lie waiting for the movers/vocalists, and the chance to have each night be a new night of finding things between the lines. However, I do not think the performance was balanced, and that’s why I think the idea was not executed well. I do think it’s worth revisiting though.
A few notes on the technical aspects- I appreciated the original music by Sean-Joseph Choo and Kahana Ho. Ho actually played guitar there- I’m a sucker for live music/bands, as there is no substitute for the richness of an instrument’s voice. I didn’t follow with some of Ho’s lighting choices, though to her credit it is a difficult space to light and as with any outdoor production, she probably did not have as much lighting accessories on hand as she would in an enclosed theatre. I enjoyed the consistent themes present in Rose Wolfe and Ryan Gravela’s costume designs, and Mia Yoshimoto’s hair and makeup design was fun and functional for each role (there are a plethora of wigs, beards, mustaches, and makeup to go around!).
On a final note, the gender fluid casting present in this production was wonderful to see. Gender as the actors presented it was never a punchline, and thus the casting is a beautiful and progressive example of how diverse our productions can be. This kind of gender blind/fluid casting is not a new revelation in Shakespeare or theatre, but it’s exciting to see a vast range of men and women onstage portrayed by actors that are not necessarily the gender they are moving/voicing, and that should be something we celebrate and continue to explore.
Hawaii Shakespeare Festival’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is running at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm through August 17. Tickets are available for the production here.