On Tuesday, April 4, Radford’s Department of Theater and Cinema will partake in its oldest tradition with the performance of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”
The play, which runs through Sunday, April 9, will be the 17th time the Bard has graced the boards of the Radford stage.
Director Molly Hood describes Much Ado About Nothing as a comedy that inches dangerously close to tragedy, offering a wide array of emotions and themes. From Hood’s perspective, Shakespeare is “the Olympics of acting” and she’s impressed with the performances her 21st Century students have put forward on a play first performed more than 400 years ago.
“The text demands articulation, deep understanding of language and motivation of character, as well as peak physical strength and endurance,” Hood explained. “It is fantastic training for actors, and the techniques and skills used to perform Shakespeare’s plays are immediately applicable to modern acting work.”
Much Ado About Nothing is a perfect play for actors to hone those skills since it offers the intricacy, layered language and physicality Shakespeare is known for.
The play entwines two complimentary storylines related to love. The centerpiece is the courtship of a noble maiden, Hero, by a respected soldier, Claudio. The seemingly perfect couple inspires jealousy and soon a plot is launched to tear them apart.
Meanwhile, in true Shakspearian style, Beatrice and Benedick have both sworn off love and there is a parallel plot to bring them together.
For senior Theater major Frey Bendele, the key to making Shakespeare work today is envisioning the characters, situations and even the jokes in a modern context first. Bendele says playing Claudio demands a range of expression within the character that makes him relatable to modern audiences.
“He’s this very pure and noble character who, throughout the plot, is forced to do some ignoble things because of the conspiracy against him,” Bendele explained. “In the first act, I am playing this really great guy who everyone describes as wonderful and then I make this terrible, boneheaded move and I hurt people.”
The sometime raucous and sometimes tender role of Beatrice, one of Shakespeare’s wittiest characters, falls to an actress known simply as Queen, whose ability to enliven a scene makes her the perfect choice.
For Queen, a senior, this is a dream role, a chance to explore a character who is one thing to the outside world but quite another on the inside.
“You have some scenes where you have to be that tough woman and you give wit back and forth with Benedick,” Queen said. “But then you find out there are some affections in your name and there may be some love. You get a bit vulnerable.”
Zoe Keith, a junior, plays multiple roles which require not just quick costume changes but whole character shifts.
“Only one of my characters is female,” Keith said, referencing Ursula, the gossipy handmaid to Hero. Her other characters are men with serious demeanors.
“It’s been a journey differentiating them, but it’s my favorite thing to do as an actor,” Keith said.
Shakespearian theater at Radford University began with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in February 1968, when The Department of Dramatic Arts and Speech was brand new and the school was still called Radford College.
General admission was $1.00 and even students had to jangle out 50 cents. (Today, plays are free for students.) Given that the production budget for the entire first season was only $100, this is more than understandable.
The most famous role of the play, the mischievous Puck, went to first year student Debbie Twardy, who got her picture in the Roanoke Times. The “skimpiness” of the costumes for both men and women created quite a buzz, according to Beall. “The fairies literally had bra cups and chiffon wings glued to their bodies,” Beall said. “Back in the day, we did not have a costumer on staff, so a student would step up. The girl who played Titania the Fairy Queen, Tammy Scruggs, was also the costumer and I was a work-study student in the costume shop.”
As for official notices, the Tartan staff were impressed, saying that “the costume design was highly praised by all who attended.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains the most produced Shakespeare play on Radford’s campus with a third production taking place in 2003. Overall, the department has leaned toward comedies and As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Comedy of Errors have been produced twice each.
The most curious of Shakespeare’s work on the Radford stage was an April 1998 production of “Look in Thy Glass.” If that doesn’t strike a chord with theater fans, that’s because it is not a play but rather a stage adaptation of his sonnets.
Tragedies have seen less stage time over the years, but Romeo and Juliet has been produced twice (in 1974 and 2011) and Macbeth hit the stage first in 1999 and again in 2019, the most recent Shakespearian offering.
Joshua Mullins played the ill-fated Banquo in “The Scottish Play” which most Radford performers and technicians refer to as “Mackers” in honor of the long-standing theater superstition of not saying the play’s name during production.
Though Banquo does nothing against Macbeth, he orders his assignation as he seeks to avoid the unpleasant side of the witches’ prophesy. Banquo is viciously attacked in one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest scenes.
“I was then dragged off stage right to quickly change into an identical costume (kilt and all), except this one had been literally dragged through the mud,” Mullins mused.
“Once the new costume was on, I had to grab my dagger, sprint through the men’s dressing room, into the hallway, through the women’s dressing room and over to the stage left wing.”
But that was just the beginning of the stage transformation from flesh to apparition.
“There, Elizabeth Brancotti was waiting with a bowl of mud that I would use to rake through my long hair and over my hands,” Mullins continued.
Brancotti would then pour fake blood Mullins’ mouth and nose, leaving him just enough time to appear in a “zombie green light,” directly behind Macbeth.
In this year’s offering, most of the violence is verbal, ranging from repartee to slander in a plot mixing love and joy with jealousy, malice, and gossip. But of course, it is ultimately a comedy and has some very funny moments despite the underlying treachery.
Molly Hood says Much Ado About Nothing is the play that made her fall in love with Shakespeare and despite the age on the language, the characters might well be living next door to you.
“It’s just really, really funny” Hood said. “There are lines that still make me laugh out loud, even though I’ve worked with this text for decades, and know the jokes are coming.”
And she wants the audience to enjoy it just as much.
“My goal is to help make the story clear and enjoyable for everyone who sets foot in our theater,” Hood concluded.
Public performances take place in the Bondurant Auditorium in Preston Hall on April 6, 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. There is also a matinee on Sunday, April 9 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are available at the door or online. General admission is $8, senior citizens, faculty and staff tickets are $6 and children under 12 get in for $4.