For their first production, The Savannah Shakes swept theatre lovers back to the '40s in a rousing take on Taming of the Shrew. Audiences, love struck, returned for their fascinating interpretation of Hamlet set in 1950's Leave it To Beaver-style domestic America with a Kerouacian Hamlet lead.
Now, they follow the Bard into the next decade with Much Ado About Nothing, set in the swingin’ ‘60s.
Directed by Collective Face Ensemble member Karla Knudsen, the Shakes’ take on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies is a hysterical, hard look at class, gender roles, and romance.
Shakespeare is, of course, timeless, but the Shakes were particularly struck by the way Much Ado fit so naturally into the 1960s.
“We found so many parallels with sexism, voting rights, and the precursor to the Vietnam War,” Knudsen marvels.
Much Ado kicks off with men returning from war. As their next production, Henry V, will delve further into the Vietnam War, the Shakes decided that, in their adaptation, the gentlemen are on their way back from an unspecified deal.
“We keep it between The Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan and right before the Tet Offensive,” says Knudsen.
With a big Mad Men influence, psychedelic swirls of color, and fabulous costuming, the performance is a visual treat.
“Much Ado encapsulates that time between the first half of the ‘50s and the late ‘60s beautifully,” says Savannah Shakes co-founder Christopher Soucy.
“It struck us right off the bat to be Mad Men ad execs and play with the strong façade of the ‘60s. We’ve been developing more into that Mod Squad, psychedelic world, and we’re really enjoying playing with the notion that these characters are having that sort of hollow experience and slowly filling it with the well of emotion that encapsulates that decade. We saw a lot of surface beauty in the ‘60s that gave way to a tumultuous time.”
At the heart of Much Ado About Nothing lies the cunning and sharp banter between clever Beatrice and snarky nobleman Benedick. As they catapult barbed words and smooth insults at one another, it becomes clearer and clearer that the two are meant to be together.
“You know, the word ‘nothing was pronounced ‘noting’ in Shakespeare’s day,” Knudsen observes. “We’re taking that quite literally, because this play is very much about how we observe things and take them in. Eavesdropping, passing notes, communicating in ways other than straightforward.”
From subtleties to loud declarations, Much Ado will keep the audience on its toes.
“We’re so used to our contemporary, savvy entertainment that is so understated, and the big story is tucked under,” says Knudsen. “Shakespeare tells really big stories on the outside. It’s safe, because it’s in this container of gorgeous words and sharp humor, and in Much Ado, the juxtaposition of the tragic and the comic is athletic.”
Knudsen once heard someone call Much Ado “almost a comedy”—that couldn’t be closer to the truth.
“It dupes you,” she explains. “When I go to see theatre, I love to be duped. [Shakespeare] gives them a 180 in this. I think, somewhere in our nature, we understand those opposites.”
A former SCAD Performing Arts professor, Knudsen has enjoyed the Muse Arts Warehouse in her time as a Collective Face Theatre Ensemble member. This is her first time with the Shakes.
“We have people from all walks of life with this cast—SCAD students who are graduating in mere hours, people with full-time jobs, teachers, people who have babies, kids, and lives,” Knudsen says of her Shakes peers. “They’re really brainy!”
The cast is enjoying bringing Shakespeare’s words to life in rehearsals.
“When you see Shakespeare, it was meant to be heard,” Knudsen points out. “That’s how he wrote it. It was popular entertainment of the time. People didn’t have books en masse like we do now. They needed to go see it and hear it and feel the sweat flying off the actors’ faces.”
Co-founders Soucy and Sheila Lynne Bolda couldn’t be more excited to welcome new faces to the troupe.
“We’re only a year old,” Soucy points out. “We’re at the one-year mark and we couldn’t ask for a better community reception and dedication from audiences. We’ve struck a chord and we feel that, and the chord is community where people can get together, express themselves, and enjoy well thought-out art. We feel that it was a complement to the culture of Savannah and other theatre in Savannah. It only enhances the experience for everyone.”