On the Verge Theater has an established record of creating one-of-a-kind theatrical experiences with site-specific productions in locations as varied as a clothing boutique and a funeral home.
But its latest production, Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (which is billed as Much Ado), performed at Central Christian Church, is the group's most ambitious and most interesting yet.
Director Ave Lawyer tapped an all-star cast in an updated version of the play that is both entertaining, innovative, and immersive in a way that takes site-specific playing to the next level.
Her imaginative leap to contemporary times as the play's setting is a risky move, but it succeeds in large part because of the clever way the audience encounters the sprawling space, which itself becomes a character, like the audience.
While Shakespeare set the comedy of romantic follies in Messina, Italy, on the heels of a war, Lawyer's story is in the present, on the heels of a political campaign. It's an apt choice, considering the brutality of political campaigns we see on our televisions every day.
Senator Don Peter (Don Paedro, in Shakespeare's version) has just defeated his political foes, despite a last-minute scandal thanks to his rebellious daughter Donna, and is spending a lavish weekend at supporter Leo's sprawling estate. The audience members are also guests for the weekend, and I was surprised to see that all attendees of the Sunday matinee I saw "got the memo" about wearing black and white.
The integration of audience participation is what makes this show unique, even for an On the Verge show. While previous productions from the group did involve moving from room to room in a point A to point B fashion, Much Ado's movement is fascinatingly three dimensional and multi-directional in a way that almost feels like a film.
This allows Lawyer to make directorial choices that are simply not relevant or possible in most theater settings. For instance, the audience witnesses the wedding gone awry between young lovers Claudio (played with passion and earnest heartache by Zachary Dearing) and Hero (played with requisite innocence and purity by Kelsey Waltermire) from the vaulted balcony of the church. The effect is the scene is "framed" from far away, creating a strangely beautiful and jarring tableau. We feel the loftiness of the wedding ceremony itself, but when it devolves into a public shaming, watching from the balcony somehow makes it even more vulgar and disturbing. The beautiful frame is marred.
The audience then turns to the back of the balcony, where Beatrice (played with lush wit and relish by Janet Scott) is weeping in front of a stained glass window before Benedict (charmingly portrayed by Tom Phillips) woos her in her sadness. The scene is touching enough on its own, but the experience of changing viewpoint from catastrophe far below at the church's altar to the love that is springing from sadness at the peak of the church is an emotionally moving change in point of view that underscores the meaning behind the moment: that grief can elevate us to say our truths, that shared vulnerability can quietly elevate and bind us.
There are many such shifts in point of view that are made possible by the unique architecture of the church, like diagonal, upward angled scenes near staircases that make the audience feel they are part of a private family dispute ... and as "guests," they are.