“There were no romantic comedies designed for me when I was coming of age,” writes director Peter Reynolds in his program notes for Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing. “There was no Sleepless in Seattle for gay twentysomethings. Tom Hanks wooed Meg Ryan (mind you, breathtakingly), but how did that apply to me? Oh, yes, I was supposed to imagine I was Meg Ryan!”
Reynolds makes it a bit easier to imagine with his interpretations of one of the oldest-school romantic-comedy scribes: William Shakespeare. After a successful, gender-bending production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream two summers ago, the Temple grad’s new Much Ado About Nothing posits a world in which the two lead couples, and most of the other characters, are gay men.
The script changed very little — mainly the swapping of pronouns and careful addition of names to clarify who “he” is. But the context and content are drastically different: The lines change only minimally, but Much Ado is now set in a world where being gay is completely normal, and the happy ending involves everyone celebrating the double wedding of two soldiers to two other men. In this idealized world, “there’s no struggle,” notes Cameron Scot Slusser, the gay actor who plays Hero; in the real world, he says, “Men don’t grow up being gay — they have to come out.”
The plot is almost exactly the same: While their regiment is back from battle, Prince Don Pedro’s right-hand man, Claudio (played here by Griffin Back), falls for the sweetheart Hero — who is now male. Meanwhile, Don Pedro and friends conspire to match curmudgeonly bachelor Benedick up with Hero’s sharp-tongued cousin, Beatrice — also now a man.
New York actor Sean Thompson plays Beatrice, who in the original context is a character with deep “built-in power and class struggles as a woman in a world of powerful noblemen and soldiers.” Changing the character’s gender, then, “opens up a heaping mess of questions” about Beatrice’s motivations as a man. Over the course of rehearsals, Thompson decided that, in the play’s alternate reality, “There are manly men who keep their emotions in check, fight battles and defend the land; while there are, at home, a fairer set of men who assume the more subservient or submissive roles and generally tend to let themselves express more when it comes to emotion or sentimentality.”
Hero is one of these “fairer” men. In the original play, she’s the archetypical “perfect” woman, sweet and subservient — a contrast with Beatrice, who’s funny and smart but difficult. Slusser’s male Hero was “brought up to be separate from the military,” the young Temple musical-theater major explains. “His mother saves him from that life. She wants Hero to be happy, and he wants to please his mother.”
As you might guess from the gender of Hero’s parent, men aren’t the only ones affected by the gender swap. Barrymore-winning actress Cheryl Williams has history with Much Ado — her first Shakespearean role was actually as Hero, who at a low point is harangued by her father, Leonato, for supposedly being unfaithful to her fiancé, Claudio. Now, Williams gets to deliver that same tongue-lashing as Hero’s mother. (It’s “every gay man’s nightmare,” says Reynolds of this scene — “his mother’s condemnation.”)
For some actors, this Much Ado has an added bonus: the rare opportunity to play a gay character. “When I’m on stage,” laments Slusser, “I’m always straight.” Fellow Temple student Philip Anthony Wilson, who plays Verges, concurs. “I’ve never played a gay character before, but Verges is completely different from me.” Verges dotes on Constable Dogberry, played by Drexel student Will Poost, one of the cast’s several straight actors and veteran of two Reynolds versions of Midsummer. The gender switches weren’t an issue for him, Poost says: “I didn’t know the play before, so I didn’t know who’s supposed to be a guy or a girl.”
“I love the world ... where gay is normal, and gay men marry and are in the army,” says Williams. “This Much Ado focuses on human issues” rather than the inescapable political or religious debates. “In an ideal world, this is the way we want it to be.”
Through Aug. 26, $25, Off-Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St., 215-923-8909, mauckingbird.org.