Word play and sword play mark "Much Ado About Nothing," Queen Elizabeth's favorite play and Shakespeare's biggest success.
The comedy and romance opens at 8 p.m. Friday for a three-week run in Juneau. Katie Jensen and Aaron Elmore of Theatre in the Rough are producing the show, and they've swathed McPhetres Hall in white drapery and set the stage up in the middle of the room with rows of chairs on either side.
"It's a chamber piece," Elmore said. "No one's shouting from the back of the high school auditorium. We're right there."
Jensen said "Much Ado" was Shakespeare's most popular play in his day. It ran for 15 years at Shakespeare's Globe Theater and was that celebrated theater's first production.
"Queen Elizabeth loved it, it was her favorite play. And King James, who followed her, loved it as well. He had it performed 20 times during the celebration of his daughter's wedding," Jensen said.
Although the play opens with a swordfight, most of the jousting is done with words. It's essentially a battle of wits between two clever aristocrats, Beatrice and Benedick, who are reluctant to acknowledge their attraction for one another.
"Beatrice is one of the great wits of literature, and Benedick goes toe to toe with her," Elmore said.
That repartee may explain some of Queen Elizabeth's love for the comedy. Although "Much Ado About Nothing" does not involve political intrigue the way some of Shakespeare's plays do, it alludes to the changing social structure between the sexes in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare wrote the play in 1599, a time Jensen said was a cultural and social renaissance in England.
"In the Elizabethan social structure of the time the men went off to war and it was the women of the court who controlled the politics," Jensen said. "(The queen) was surrounded by male chancellors, but there were a lot of Machiavellian machinations going on. Women controlled from behind the scenes."
Jensen said the women of the court were able to rise to greater prominence and had the freedom to develop their own intellect. "Much Ado" is something of a metaphor for the situation.
"They fueled the intellectual and artistic renaissance that was going on," Jensen said. "Beatrice is a women's rights activist. She goes way out on a limb, and so does Shakespeare by writing that."
Theater as we know it was born during that period, and "Much Ado" is a centerpiece of that transformation. One of the Queen's chancellors had outlawed theater as it had been known roving bands of players that performed throughout the countryside. The decree mandated that players be affiliated with a nobleman and a fixed theater. The Globe was one of the first of these and became something of a prototype because of its success.
"Much Ado" was probably the last play Shakespeare wrote before he retired from acting and devoted himself strictly to writing. Jensen said some scholars believe he wrote the part of Benedick for himself and played the role as his swan song from the company.
Jensen plays Beatrice and Ed Christian plays Benedick. Both are veterans of the Juneau stage. Elmore is directing and plays both Prince Don Pedro and the comical Verges.
Verges is the sidekick of constable Dogberry, and Jensen called Dogberry and Verges Shakespeare's most hilarious, bizarre and famous clowns.
Donice Gott plays Dogberry, and also Beatrice's cousin Hero. Gott has spent much of the past year studying clown theater and performing clownish roles she played Professor Penelope in "Fry Tales" and delivered an award-winning performance in a clown piece recently at the San Francisco Fringe Theatre Festival.
"Much Ado" also includes Darius Mannino, who played Romeo last year at Perseverance Theatre. Ibn Baily, Mike Petersen, Ani Togerson, Lori Roland and Bill Thompson also bring their talents to the show.
"Much Ado About Nothing" runs at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at McPhetres Hall for the next three weeks. The final show will be Saturday, Nov. 11. There will be a free dress rehearsal tonight. Tickets are available at Hearthside Books and at the door, $12 for adults, $2 more at the door, $8 for seniors and $5 for children 12 and under.