Video: Hampshire Shakespeare season opens Friday with ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Last modified: Thursday, October 03, 2013

Hampshire Shakespeare Company opens its 2013 series with back-to-back productions of “Much Ado About Nothing” — each a little bit different than the other.

The popular Shakespeare comedy will be presented first by the Young Company, July 19-21, which will be followed July 31 through Aug. 4 and Aug. 7-11 by performances of the play by the Main Stage Company. Both shows will be presented on a newly constructed outdoor stage at The Center for Renaissance Studies in Amherst.

The productions have been developed independently; each has its own director, cast and stage manager, although they will share Elizabethan-style costumes owned by the Renaissance Center.

“Much Ado About Nothing” was written by William Shakespeare in about 1598, sometime during the middle of his career. It’s classic Shakespeare, with loads of hilarious hubbub: subterfuge, mistaken identities and misaligned allegiances.

The comedy follows two couples, Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero, and cleverly contrasts the two romances: the classic love-blind duet of Claudio and Hero, and the witty bickering match of Benedick and Beatrice. To wit: Claudio and Hero’s love begins to unwind at the hands of Don Pedro’s jealous brother, Don John, who meddles in the couple’s planned nuptials. At a masked party, Don John and Borachio fool Claudio into believing Don Pedro has wooed Hero for himself. Claudio begins to believe Hero is unfaithful.

With the help of the neighborhood guard, and a drunken Borachio, Hero and Claudio stand a chance.

Even Benedick and Beatrice, who repeatedly and loudly proclaim their disdain for one another, grow closer together, and the play moves toward a happy ending.

HSC was established in 1989, by two New York City actors, Tim Holcomb and Steve Eldredge, who moved to the Valley looking for a better place to raise their families.

For the last 24 years, the nonprofit company has brought professional, amateur and student actors together in some 50 plays. Thirty of those have been Shakespeare plays for the “Shakespeare Under the Stars” series, an outdoor summer theater festival that began in 1991. The company recently left its stage at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley to perform at The Center for Renaissance Studies. The company is constructing a new stage behind the center.

The directors, Toby Bercovici for the Young Company, and Skye Landgraf for the Main Stage company, have fashioned the play to suit their companies’ needs; both have made cuts to the long script, for instance, but each has chosen different parts to put on the chopping block.

There are other differences, including cast size and rehearsal schedules, but the most striking is the age of the actors. In the past, HSC produced two productions of the same show to give the younger actors a chance to draw inspiration, and learn from the Main Stage production.

Traditionally, the younger actors, ages 11 to 18, fill principal roles in their own production, and then serve in smaller roles in the main production, alongside their older counterparts. Although that isn’t happening this year, Bercovici says her actors can still learn from observing the Main Stage production.

First up

Bercovici, 29, says she’s hoping the younger actors will get a chance to meet the older performers who’ve taken on the same roles. Thus far, the youngest of her cast, she says, have been looking to the oldest in their own group for inspiration.

“It’s OK for an 11 year old to be in a little bit over their head,” Bercovici said in an interview at a recent rehearsal. “They rise to the challenge and look up to the 18 year olds, who may seem to know a little bit more about what they’re doing.”

Gabrielle Holme-Miller, 18, who plays Beatrice in the Young Company’s production, has performed seven times with HSC, but, she says, she remembers what it felt like to be the new kid in the cast.

“Especially with some of the less experienced actors, it’s nice to have someone to look up to, someone with more experience,” she said.

Northampton and the Pioneer Valley are familiar to Bercovici. She majored in theater at Smith College. After graduating and living in New York City for two years, she returned and received a master’s degree in directing in 2011. For the last two years, Bercovici has been living in Northampton, freelance directing and teaching an adult acting class in town.

Her role as director of the Young Company, she says, incorporates lots of teaching, which she’s grown fond of. What’s most interested her in recent years, she says, is helping actors achieve personal discovery — expanding and deepening her actors through their work.

“It becomes more about the individual for me, than the script, in many ways: What the script can do for the individual,” Bercovici said.

When she’s working with younger actors, for example, she wants them to come to the first rehearsals having read, but not having memorized, their lines. It’s important, she says, to do group read-throughs before memorizing. Going over the script together allows the actors to ask questions, and to discuss parts of the play that are confusing — with Shakespeare, she adds, that often includes a tutorial on how to pronounce the many unfamiliar words.

At the Young Company’s first read-through of the play last week at the Renaissance Center there were smiles and laughs as the actors dove into the jaunty script.

The learning process continues when the group first takes the stage. The actors aren’t given strict positions. Bercovici says she likes to let the blocking of her plays develop organically, by allowing the young actors to feel out when to go where during the play.

Holme-Miller, the Young Company’s Beatrice, says Bercovici and her assistant director, Carissa Dagenais, have been a big help to cast members as they learn their characters and develop as performers.

“The body movement work has been very helpful for me — letting yourself be how you feel about it, instead of being how you think you’re supposed to be it,” Holme-Miller said.

Main stage

Skye Landgraf’s Main Stage cast of 12 ranges in experience and age as well, though, all are older than 18.

Landgraf, 23, says she’s working to build an ensemble piece, a difficult task with the number of characters in Shakespeare’s play. The amount of time, weight and presence given to each character can be tough to manage when cutting his plays down, she says.

“Working to build that ensemble is a challenge, but it’s a fun challenge,” she said.

In some cases, she has cast a single actor in two roles. For example, Schuyler Evans, will play both Margaret, Hero’s serving woman, and Seacol, a member of the neighborhood watch.

Margaret is used by Borachio to deceive her friend Hero, and isn’t afforded the chance to speak up about it in the play. By dual-casting the role, it allows the audience to see that actor get the chance to confront Borachio in the play.

“It’s one of my more exciting dual-castings,” Landgraf said.

Two other pairs of roles, Hero and Oatcake (Alexandra Constas of Northampton), and Ursula and Verges (Robyn Spateholts of Amherst) have also been dual-cast; each pairing, Landgraf says, offers women in the play a stronger voice.

Originally from Philadelphia, Landgraf, who now lives in Amherst, received a bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College in 2012, with a concentration in playwriting and directing. She first read “Much Ado” as a young student, and has acted in it and even directed it before, with Shakespeare on the Quad, a local theater company she cofounded that casts Five College students and alumni.

“I’ve always felt like it’s one of those plays that’s followed me around my entire life,” she said.


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