Arts theater review

Much Ado About Nothing: hormones and humor run rampant in Messina gaming lounge

Ensemble’s choice of setting brings Shakespeare into the digital age and into our hearts

Much Ado About Nothing

Performed by the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

Directed by Damon Krometis

Runs March 17, 19 at 8 p.m. and March 13 at 4 p.m. Tickets can be reserved online.

MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley students: $5

Other students and MIT Community: $9

General admission: $12

Taking a theatrical journey to Messina, the traditional setting of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, was exactly what I needed by the end of this past week. It turned out to be a rather unexpected kind of Messina — a gaming lounge rather than a small Italian town. But hey, “all the world’s a stage,” and the Shakespeare Ensemble does a fantastic job of adapting one of the Bard’s most beloved comedies to ours.

The story to unfold is one of youthful love and camaraderie and the power of hearsay, rumor, and aspersions cast against honor. Young Claudio (Raine K. Hasskew ’17), enamored of the fair Hero (Lillian McKinley ’15), enlists Pedro (Peter A. Duerst ’18), his popular (gaming wizard) friend, to help him woo the daughter of Leonato (Robert A. Thorpe II, ’18). Pedro’s brother, John (Victor F. Gutierrez ’17), has other ideas and hatches a plot to break the two apart. Another pair, Benedick (Colin C. Aitken ’17) and Beatrice (Amelia M. Smith ’17), play out a duel of wits and scorn. Their friends try to make something out of nothing, and hence, bring the unlikely couple together.

The level of acting was impressive across the board. As I have found in most productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice and Benedick steal the stage with their witty repartees and exaggerated displays of contempt for each other. Aitken, a lanky Cumberbatch-like figure, was a master of facial contortion and body language. When alone on stage, he was skilled at filling the space with his presence and engaging the audience. Smith, as Beatrice, is a worthy adversary whose tongue un-trippingly rolls out Shakespeare’s best comebacks and yet, she girlishly succumbs to the calls of love — a juicy contradiction. Rather than being a leader by title, as in the original play, Pedro garners his support organically, partly through his gaming prowess, but also by the clear strength of spirit and loyalty that is conveyed so well by Duerst. Claudio and Hero are the picture of teenage passion, and you can imagine what that means. Leonato, Hero’s father, expertly projects both his lines and the cutting pain and betrayal he feels.

The staging of the production, barring minor technical difficulties, was well executed and demonstrated a creative use of space. The actors played their parts in front of a backdrop of computer monitors mounted in the rear, which alternately showed scenes from video games and Skype calls that were happening between characters. In interludes between dialogues, as a manner of exposition, or to show a character’s pent-up frustration, the actors would take on the identity of their gaming world counterparts: a whip-bearing maiden, a wizard, a king. Not only were these interludes amusing, but they provided breathing room between scenes. This style of engagement also served as a brilliant substitute for the masked ball in the original play, during which the wooing of Hero takes place. And when you consider it, what are these virtual gaming characters if not masks?

This production seemed like it was trying to raise some interesting questions about the nature of communication and rumor in our digital world but does so only obliquely, partly because it opts instead to remain faithful to the original script. There are some aspects that are rather strange in this gamer’s lounge but not implausible, like Hero’s father playing video games alongside her and hanging around the lounge all day.

Several times during the play, I had the flickering thought, “Wow, these are MIT students?” and the thought was not related to the caliber of their performance, which was high, but to the fact that I was so immersed in the experience, it seemed strange to imagine them in any other context. It is sure to lift your spirits and warm your heart. But in the words of Claudio, “Let every eye negotiate for itself, and trust no agent,” so don’t trust my word for it, go see it for yourself!