Megan Geigner, the new director of the U.S. Naval Academy’s midshipman theater group The Masqueraders, grabbed the helm with deft touch and a focused vision, staging a delightfully energetic version of Shakespeare’s popular comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. She chose the play because it’s about young people, more specifically young people coming home from war, and about gender relations.
Instead of the Bard’s Messina, Geigner has cleverly changed the setting to New Mexico just at the end of World War I. Changing Shakespeare’s setting can come off as artsy and presumptuous, but in this case it works well. The very nice southwestern-themed set by Andrew Cohen frames a production that, without changing Shakespeare’s meaning, opens up ample opportunities, most especially for some hilarious constables turned cowpokes.
The Bard’s story of love, mistaken identities, gender conflict and status moves at rapid pace with crisp characterizations. Hero, the daughter of a nobleman, is in love with Claudio, a well-respected young nobleman. Her cousin Beatrice is in love with the sharp-tongued Benedick, whose witty and insulting repartee can’t disguise his love for her as well. Their back-and-forth banter, and Beatrice’s independence, wit and intensity make her perhaps the first suffragette ever to be included in a Shakespeare play, perfect again for this setting.
As Hero and Beatrice, Clara Navarro and Julia Kalshoven brilliantly play two tough, strong-willed women. As Beatrice’s beloved Benedick, Jonathan Mendez adds nice comedic touches and confused patter to the befuddled character. Nick Hajek convinces us of Claudio’s willingness to sacrifice love for ego when faced with hearsay about his betrothed’s unfaithfulness. The chemistry between each couple is made nicely palpable by the actors.
The real laughable foolishness comes with Shakespeare’s comic characters, the constables. Evan Wray is a hilarious Dogberry, the Master Constable whose smug self-satisfaction in most productions is replaced here by a frenetic, animated cowpoke in charge of a sad-sack cast of watchmen. Wray stops moving only long enough for his constantly falling cowboy hat to be replaced by a deputy. His performance as he instructs his charges how to do their jobs— sleeping on duty is fine, and never touch a criminal lest you become defiled by association — is a tumblin’ tumbleweed of fun.
The rest of the 17-person cast provides solid support and keeps the comedy flowing and the story unfolding apace, though in a few places more volume and projection would help the audience follow along. Lights by Jake Potter, Tony Wolfe and David Ogden nicely highlight the actors, set and moods, and Jacy’s Barbers’ costumes — especially the beautiful off-white period dresses of the ladies — work very well.
The Nothing in Shakespeare’s title is the subject of debate: Some believe it refers not to the emptiness ascribed to it in the modern vernacular, but to the word noting, which in Shakespeare’s time was pronounced nothing but was a verb meaning to gossip, to spread rumors and to overhear. If this was Shakespeare’s intent, it makes sense because his play was not about nothing, it was about … well, something. And the USNA Masqueraders’ production is quite something.