Directors tackling Shakespeare have a long tradition of rethinking the Bard in modern terms. Examples include Macbeth staged with a cast of 20th-century gangsters and, of course, Romeo and Juliet reinterpreted with song and dance on the streets of New York City.
Ray Thompson, in directing Much Ado about Nothing, likewise brings a surprising twist to the production at DCP Theatre, opening January 27.
In underlining the frothy plot about innuendo, rumor and the confusion that results from eavesdropping, Thompson outfits his cast with cell phones.
Yup, it’s Shakespearean selfies and posts in prose.
Thompson’s inspiration for this unusual framing device came from his day job.
“I’m an administrator in the Chester Upland School District; I was also a teacher there for many years,” Thompson says. “And each Monday, we discuss the implications of our students’ use – and misuse – of social media over the past weekend. It’s amazing that even with all the information out there about the dangers, how unthinking these kids are in what they post, their comments, their pictures.”
The cast enthusiastically embraced the creative approach.
Russ Walsh, playing Leonato, explains, “The title has come to us as Much Ado about Nothing. But it is taken from the concept of ‘noting’ in Elizabethan times.”
Noting back then meant being critical of others, chronicling faults and shortcomings, either real or – especially in terms of Much Ado – perceived.
“We are taking the notion of noting and overlaying a contemporary take on it, which is through social media,” Walsh continues. “So the characters actually text each other and post on Facebook and Snapchat and all that.”
The set design helps further the artistic approach to the play. Four large panels occupy the stage, and the cast reconfigures them as needed for different settings. But they also serve as screens, when characters’ social media posts are projected onto them.
David Williams (Claudio) clarifies: “In this show, we deal a lot with shaming. And a lot of that happens on Facebook with issues like cyber-bullying. Incorporating social media into the plot clarifies the idea of miscommunication. It makes it more relatable.”
Director Thompson does more than just guide this production. He is also in charge of the sound and lighting design, a role he fills with utter fearlessness. As the cast warms up with vocal exercises to get their modern tongues around Elizabethan dialogue, Thompson carries a massive stepladder onstage – alone – and scurries up it to adjust a light.
All this labor doesn’t interfere with the goal to ensure that the play – which is a comedy after all – is funny.
Aaron Wexler (Don John) reminds, “Hopefully, one of the things the audience will take away is that Shakespeare is not something to be afraid of. He has something to say about contemporary life…or, rather, we have something to say about contemporary life through him.
“But all that aside, this play is really funny. It absolutely is.
“I always think of it as the world’s first rom-com.”
Highlighting that latter point, the run of DCP Theatre’s Much Ado about Nothing includes a February 11 performance (8 p.m.) for Valentine’s Day.
Dan Wentzel, cast as Benedick, chimes in: “I’d much rather be doing this show on Valentine’s Day than Romeo and Juliet. Because nothing says romance like a double-suicide onstage.”
Much Ado about Nothing opens January 27, and the opening weekend (Friday and Saturday) offers a preshow wine and cheese social hosted by director Ray Thompson. Adult tickets are $18; seniors and students are $16; all seats are general admission, so early arrival is advised. DCP Theatre is located at 795 Ridge Road, Telford, Pa.