Looking for Lilith Theatre Company opens an all-female production of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” this week, setting the merry war-between-the-sexes romantic comedy in the days following the end of World War I.
The production opens Thursday and runs through October 13 in the new downstairs mainstage space at the Alley Theater in Butchertown’s The Pointe (1205 E. Washington St.).
Mounting a full Shakespeare production has been a goal of Looking for Lilith’s since the feminist theater company staged an evening of scenes and monologues by Shakespeare’s women characters titled “Women of Will.” When director Kathi E.B. Willis directed an all-female version of “Macbeth” a couple of summers ago, she found the process presented a fresh look at Shakespeare’s classic scripts.
“By putting only one gender on stage, automatically the language about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman literally lifts itself up off the page, because you’re hearing those comments in the voices of, in this case, just women and of course, way back when, just men,” says Ellis.
“Much Ado About Nothing” is the story of a group of men returning from war who settle into a small country estate to relax after battle. The dashing Benedick has a long-standing “merry war” of wits brewing with feisty Beatrice, whose more tradition-minded cousin Hero is swept off her feet by Benedick’s fellow solider Claudio. Shakespeare’s romantic comedy tropes are out in full force in this play—false rumors, disastrous miscommunication, full-force matchmaking and one of the Bard’s best fools, the malaprop-spewing constable Dogberry.
In this production, the women playing male characters will be costumed as men, echoing the Elizabethan origins of Shakespeare’s original productions, when all roles were played by men.
“When you make choices to do one-gender productions, particularly of Shakespeare but any show, there are so many variations of how to approach it in terms of the story you want to tell,” says Ellis. “Because Lilith is a women’s theater company and we are always looking at things through women’s perspectives, the idea of lifting up women’s voices—even though we’re seeing a quote-unquote ‘traditional’ gender division through the costuming—was an intriguing way for us to look at this particular script.”
“Benedick is a man, Beatrice is a woman. Claudio is a man, Hero is a woman. So when we hear what looks like a man talk about what he thinks a woman should or should not be, we’re still hearing it with a female voice” she adds.
The script’s concern with gender roles fits particularly well into the time period Ellis chose for her production—1919, immediately following World War I, when the first wave of the feminist movement was in full swing in the United States. The debate over women’s suffrage reached a fever pitch before the states ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, and men returning home from war found more women working outside of the home.
“The most obvious example in the script is Beatrice is very forthright, not a woman who is easily silenced. She is as comfortable talking girl talk with the girls as she is taking on any number of the men, young and old, family and non-family, in how she lives her life,” says Ellis.
Benedick and Claudio are fighter pilots—those dashing daredevils—while Don John and his cadre of cads perform less romantic roles in battle. Ellis says ragtime music and silent films also factor into the design of the production, especially the party scene.
“We’re on the cusp of Prohibition as well, so this is, you know, the idea that we can still party—so let’s,” says Ellis. “The more we looked at it the more we found lots of things that made sense to bring into all of the storytelling in the script.”