Much Ado About Nothing — Mission Theatre Company

Titus & Much Ado About Nothing

Mission Theatre Company
Directed by Penelope Parsons-Lord

For their third collaboration in as many years, Minneapolis’s Mission Theatre Company and director Penelope Parsons-Lord have chosen to stage one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, alongside one of his lesser-known and bloodiest tragedies, Titus Andronicus. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Both plays begin with characters returning from war, and both feature broken promises of marriage, but the resemblances pretty much end there. Still, while giving each play its due in terms of tone, Parsons-Lord and her cast are consistent in the way they show respect for the value systems of the characters while providing a clear-eyed look at the consequences of those values.

Titus Andronicus

The folks at Mission have calculated that Titus averages 5.2 atrocities per act. I haven’t counted, but that sounds about right. Much of the violence is planned and/or perpetrated by Tamora (Anneliese Stuht), Queen of the Goths, and her Moorish lover Aaron (Ricardo Beaird). Still, one can never entirely forget that the cycle of revenge that drives the play’s action is initiated by the more “civilized” barbarism of Titus (Mike Kelley), who demands that the vanquished queen’s eldest child Alarbus (Marisa Tejada) be killed in cold blood in a gruesome “Roman rite.” From the beginning of the play, Parsons-Lord seems keen to almost parodically accentuate the savagery of the tattooed Goths, who growl and bark like dogs when angry. But it doesn’t take long to realize that the Ovid-quoting Romans are no less destructive in their vengeance.

Titus Andronicus — Image courtesy Mission Theatre CompanyParsons-Lord introduces a couple interesting innovations into Titus. One is the mostly mute figure of Death (Amy Vickroy), who watches and claims her victims throughout the play, only briefly emerging into the physical world as the clown who appears in Act IV. Another is the scene of Titus’s most gruesome act, only described in the text itself but acted out by Mission in a giddily lighthearted fashion backed by an acoustic blues soundtrack, an odd diversion in a play otherwise characterized by its grim seriousness.

Standout performances include those of Kelley, who deftly conveys Titus’s transition from classical stoicism to unbearable suffering to maniacal determination; Beaird, who never sugarcoats the racially problematic character of Aaron, playing him as a man who is genuinely evil, though still capable of tenderness toward his infant son; and Stuht, whose scheming Tamora seems ever confident of her ability to control the events unfolding around her, right up to the very end.

Much Ado About Nothing

Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, Much Ado About Nothing has a near-tragedy contained within it: the fraught love story of Hero (Tejada) and Claudio (Patrick Webster), which is only set right by a handful of characters who are capable of seeing past surface appearances, aided by a group of proto-Keystone Kops who inadvertently stumble across the truth. Mission’s rendition of the play dwells a bit more on this aspect of the story than most productions, treating Claudio’s accusations of infidelity with a seriousness that prevents them from being lightly brushed away once they are proven false. When the two characters eventually marry, it feels more like a sober acceptance of fate than a joyous occasion, as perhaps it should given everything that has happened.

Much Ado About Nothing — Mission Theatre CompanyOf course, nothing changes the fact that all the most memorable scenes and best lines in Much Ado belong not to Hero and Claudio but to the reluctant lovers Beatrice (Parsons-Lord) and Benedick (Matt Ouren). They may, like Hero and Claudio, be brought together by a ruse, but they are cleverer and more open-minded (than Claudio, at least), which makes things go better for them. Ouren does an especially impressive job of charting the always-charismatic Benedick’s journey from brash machismo to thoughtful maturity, while Parsons-Lord gives us a less “shrewish,” more playful version of Beatrice than we often see. Also notable are Kelley and Lucas Gerstner’s world-weary takes on the gentry brethren Leonato and Antonio, often seen sharing a flask.

In contemporary performances of Shakespeare, there is often an emphasis on the actors speaking the Bard’s lines as “naturally” as possible, despite the highly stylized language. Often, at least in part, “naturally” seems to mean “quickly.” Mission takes a different tack; the actors don’t hesitate to insert dramatic pauses to underline certain points, and they often break up long sentences by putting heavy stresses on conjunctions like “and” and “but.” It’s actually a quite refreshing approach that gives the actors more space to convey the emotional nuances of what they are saying, which for the most part they do successfully in both plays.

All told, these are very watchable, engaging productions of two different but complementary plays. Mission makes effective use of the same sparse set for both productions, and their costume design — archaic for Titus and more modern for Much Ado — subtly underlines some of the differences between the characters and their states of mind at various stages of the action. I would encourage anyone whose schedule allows to see both in close proximity. Titus Andronicus and Much Ado About Nothing play at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage through May 23.

Much Ado About Nothing photos by Eric Prindle
Titus Andronicus photo by Adam Svien

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

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