Mauckingbird Theatre Company caps off a summer full of Shakespeare in Philadelphia with its fascinating gay take on the Bard’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Smartly adapted and directed by Peter Reynolds—Mauckingbird’s talented co-founder and artistic director—it’s a dramatic departure from its previous productions, one that reframes the play’s exploration of masculine and feminine into an investigation of gay identity.
The story focuses on a group of soldiers who return victorious and in the mood to celebrate at the home of the region’s governor, Leonato. It is at times a dark romantic comedy featuring deception, a feigned death, an especially despicable villain and two couples on different paths to romantic bliss.
Reynolds’ production switches the gender of several key characters, a change that, in many cases, results in new sexual orientations as well. All the characters in the play are now male, with the exception of the magnificent Cheryl Williams’ Leonato and an assured Erika Anselmo as Antonio, who, instead of brothers, are now sisters. Its romantic relationships are of the homosexual variety, as the youth Hero, played by the angelic-looking Cameron Scot Slusser, and his older cousin Beatrice (Sean Thompson, who’s fabulous) are now male.
In his director’s notes, Reynolds writes that he wanted to “appropriate” Shakespeare’s love story for the gay community because as a young man, he—like other gay men—repeatedly attempted to draw parallels between his own life and the heterosexual romances he saw portrayed on the silver screen. However, Mauckingbird’s production does far more than just tailor the story for a gay audience; it also reveals an entirely new and compelling perspective on Shakespeare’s play.
Featuring Marie Anne Chiment’s creative costume design, the soldiers are a vision of masculinity in their jet black, sharply cut uniforms of cargo pants, military boots and matching berets. In contrast, Leonato’s household is decidedly more feminine in appearance, clad in soft, summery multi-colored scarves, sandals and flowing robes. However, whereas conventional productions of Much Ado tend to reinforce male-female stereotypes, in Mauckingbird’s staging, the divisions are not rigidly observed. Benedick (Matt Tallman) and his soldier buddies have no aversion to acting campy at times, and the members of Leonato’s household are neither submissive nor demure.
Gay audiences will no doubt relate to the relationship between young lovers Hero and Claudio. Slusser’s Hero is appropriately innocent, but instead of being blandly virginal and chaste, he has the natural sexual curiosity of any teenage male, and the scenes between he and promising young actor Griffin Back—who plays Claudio—are surprisingly passionate. The play’s other gay romance, between Benedick and Beatrice, is likewise reinvigorated. Both idealists who are unwilling to settle for anything less than the perfect man, the pair’s bickering is as lively as ever, but when they finally put down their masks and submit to one another despite their mutual fear of rejection, their tender display of trust and acceptance is moving.
The most surprising revelation in Mauckingbird’s Much Ado is Williams’ portrait of Leonato. In the play’s central scene, Hero is unjustly accused of sleeping with another man the night before his wedding to Claudio. Unlike Beatrice and Benedick, who have taken the time to know each other, the clueless Claudio—who falls for Hero at first sight—believes the accusation and cancels the wedding. In conventional versions, Leonato, the family patriarch, likewise rejects Hero and considers his daughter’s promiscuity an attack on his own reputation. Williams’ Leonato doesn’t entirely dismiss the charge, but her maternal instincts are clearly conveyed in her ferocious defense of Hero. She warns that if her child is innocent of the charge, those responsible for falsely accusing him will feel the full weight of her wrath.
Not every moment in Much Ado revolves around romance or motherly love. The wonderfully ridiculous Will Poost skips about the stage in a hilarious performance as the dim but determined constable Dogberry, who is aided in crime-fighting by his trustworthy and loving sidekick Verges, an amusingly salacious Philip Anthony Wilson.
Mauckingbird isn’t the first Philadelphia company to present an alternate version of a Shakespeare comedy. In 2007, Lantern Theater Company produced a comical version of Taming of the Shrew starring Benjamin Lloyd as the combustible Katherine. Mauckingbird, however, is the first to successfully stage Shakespeare from a gay perspective. In exploring the relationship between our male and female selves, the company proves that given the right circumstances, Shakespeare’s 400-year-old plays can still reveal new insights about the human condition.
Through Aug. 26. $15-25. Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom St. mauckingbird.org