Nothing Like the Present

Director Shanea N. Taylor updates “Much Ado About Nothing” with modern context and women in charge.

Shanea N. Taylor clearly loves variety. She followed up her work directing the intense existential drama “One in Two” at Richmond Triangle Players last fall by staging the lively contemporary musical “BKLYN” at Swift Creek Mill this past February.

Now she’s taking another stylistic turn by tackling Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” the first show in the 25th annual summer festival produced by Richmond Shakespeare.

It’s not enough for Taylor to give one of the bard’s most popular scripts a classical staging, however. “I have set the show here and now,” says Taylor. “And it’s a world that is pretty much run by women.”

The plot of “Much Ado” kicks off with soldiers returning from a battle, traditionally to the town of Messina run by its governor, Leonato. The local constable, who is the source of the show’s more slapsticky comedy, is Dogberry.

“In our production, Leonato is Leonata, and she is an heiress in charge of Windsor Farms Home where these soldiers come for rest and relaxation,” says Taylor. “Our Dogberry is a female and so is our Sexton, who presides over a trial in the show. So all of the people in charge are women.”

The play features one of the most entertaining couples at the heart of a Shakespeare play: Beatrice, with her famously barbed wit, and Benedick, who is resolutely opposed to marriage. The pitfall-plagued series of events that ultimately results with them together has proved so sturdy over time that it was used as the basis for the recent Sydney Sweeney movie, “Anyone But You.”

The actors playing Beatrice and Benedick in this production are both Black, a fact that Taylor says is both significant and not. “There are a million different things that I could say about why it makes sense and what I’m trying to say socially,” says Taylor. “But at the same time, I want to say, ‘Why not?’

Trevor Lawson (left) plays Benedick to Latonia Phipps’s Beatrice in a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” where the women are in charge. Photos courtesy of Richmond Shakespeare

“As much as I could get bogged down in what’s the bigger message, etc. etc., you know, we don’t ask those questions when Beatrice and Benedick are white.”

For the saucy Beatrice, Taylor has cast recent Richmond transplant, Latonia Phipps. She and Taylor first met at CoStar, where both are employed as voice-over artists. Phipps arrived here after more than a decade of theater and voice work in New York.

“I’ve been doing voiceover for a while as an actor; it’s a good business to fall into,” says Phipps. “When the actor’s strike and the writer’s strike happened, I saw the opportunity at CoStar come available and I thought I’d come to Richmond to check it out.”

Phipps says a strong voice has been a vital part of her strength as an actor. “Prior to coming here, I had a one-woman show where I played 28 characters,” she says, referring to “Fishin’ in Brooklyn,” a 2012 production she wrote and starred in. “The way I was able to develop those different personalities was through voice. It plays a huge part in translating your emotional self, in communicating what a character is fighting for.”

When it comes to “Much Ado,” Phipps says a big part of the attraction of the play for her has been the strong voice, metaphorically, of her character. “Beatrice is amazing,” she says. “This character is way before her time; she has so many opinions about the nature of relationships and of marriage. This play really transcends time in the way [Beatrice] gives voice to that female form.”

Casting some traditionally male roles with female actors makes total sense to Phipps. “The average person may be like, ‘Oh my god, they’re genderbending,’ but it really goes back to how Shakespeare wrote it,” she says. “The text is genderless, it doesn’t fall into any race. It’s just the words and the story.

“So it’s amazing that we have this production that’s like, ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ but it also kind of brings it back to the bare bones.”

Richmond Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” plays at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Rd. from Friday, May 24 to June 23. Tickets and more information available at https://richmondshakespeare.org/

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