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Shakespeare on the Lawn brings new energy to an old classic

Presenting Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of the University’s premier theatre groups prepares to take center stage April 26-28

Shakespeare on the Lawn rehearses all across Grounds in various academic buildings but always brings contagious energy wherever they may be.
Shakespeare on the Lawn rehearses all across Grounds in various academic buildings but always brings contagious energy wherever they may be.

The works of William Shakespeare have been performed for hundreds of years, with endless variations on modernizing the themes and setting. This weekend, Shakespeare on the Lawn will deliver a new rendition of “Much Ado About Nothing,” set in a southern country club — and the production is a surefire hit. The Cavalier Daily was warmly welcomed to a rehearsal April 17, where the players and production team presented the fascinating tale. 

The play centers on two complicated relationships — Hero and her soon-to-be spouse, Claudio, as well as a relationship between Claudio’s friend, Benedick, and Hero’s cousin, Beatrice — who are both tricked into believing the other is in love with them. Hilarious chaos quickly ensues, as the characters work up a great deal of fuss about seemingly simple miscommunications.

Owen Belfield, director and second-year College student, helms the project, and has worked on the organization’s previous three productions as both a member of the cast and the production team. For Belfield, a key goal in this production was to sufficiently modernize the show through a contemporary theme. 

“We wanted to do something fun, so that’s how the country club setting came to be,” Belfield said.

In addition to its reimagined setting, this rendition will feature an array of hilarious moments. Alongside Belfield, Chloe Combs, stage manager and second-year College student, has worked with the production since its early inception and has seen all of its most extravagant elements come to life. Combs highlighted the production’s energetic, comedic style  in a written statement to The Cavalier Daily.

“As this play is a comedy, we naturally have lots of fun and funny moments throughout the show,” Combs said. “I am particularly a big fan of scenes that involve a lot of running around and audience interaction. We have hiding in the audience, hiding beneath the stage, dancing, and characters pretending to be one another.”

Shakespeare on the Lawn rehearses all across Grounds in various academic buildings but always brings contagious energy wherever they may be. No matter the setting, the group infuses a much-needed shot of energy into a script that was written over 400 years ago. As viewed in rehearsal, the play never feels ancient or slow — but rather enthusiastic and full of great laughs. Belfield said he hopes that the show will bring this enthusiasm and joy to audiences in a written statement to The Cavalier Daily.

“Well, it is a comedy,” Belfield said. “I wanted to bring out the comedic elements and really emphasize our modernization efforts to make this show enjoyable for both people who have never seen a Shakespeare play and people who are big fans of his work.”

A key part of Belfield’s artistic vision is the active energy in the character of Hero — portrayed by fourth-year College student Kathleen McNerney, who has taken on the challenging role with skillful characterization. In a written statement to The Cavalier Daily, McNerney described her excitement for the duality she gets to demonstrate in the role.

“‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, so I am so excited to get to play Hero,” McNerney said. “For most of her scenes, I get to play her as this happy-go-lucky heroine who’s never had anything bad happen to her, and it’s really fun to lean into my inner giggly country club girl. I feel like that contrast makes the darker scenes even more devastating.”

Content aside, a Shakespeare on the Lawn rehearsal is marked with plenty of friendly banter and inside jokes, highlighting an evidently close community that developed since rehearsals began in late January. Members say the tight-knit social bond of the organization allows many members to continue to stay involved after their debut production. 

For example, “Much Ado About Nothing” is fourth-year College student Sivan Ben-David’s seventh Shakespeare on the Lawn production. This semester, Ben-David takes on the role of Beatrice, but most recently, she was also involved in the Fall 2023 semester production of “Julius Caesar,” where she played Brutus. Ben-David wrote to The Cavalier Daily about how she treasures the organization’s accessibility. 

“[Shakespeare on the Lawn] is a great way for people to be involved in theatre with absolutely zero experience and get the chance to do some of the most famous theatrical works ever,” Ben-David said. “It is completely student run, free classical theatre for all of Charlottesville.”

Second-year College student Kelly Dunne, who plays Claudio, said he also continues to be drawn back to Shakespeare on the Lawn due to the strong relationships he has developed as a member of the organization. Dunne also directed “Julius Caesar” last fall and continues to be prominently involved with the organization both inside and outside of rehearsals.

“[I’ll be] running lines on the Lawn with other castmates, pestering my roommate, Owen, for notes and trying new interpretations of my character until it all culminates into one amazing performance,” Dunne said. “We also spend a lot of time bonding outside of rehearsal, with plenty of cast lunches, dinners and parties for the club.”

Fourth-year College student Becca Davis, who plays the role of Benedick, agreed with Dunne in a written statement to The Cavalier Daily that Shakespeare on the Lawn offers a special social and creative outlet. Despite a heavy academic workload and other involvements, Davis has remained involved due to a feeling of pure love for the group. 

“[Shakespeare on the Lawn] taught me the importance of dedicating my time and effort to something purely out of love,” Davis said. “It can be challenging in a university environment where people feel like they should save all their energy for school work and use downtime for absolute rest. While rest is obviously important, it can be so enriching to spend one’s downtime applying rigor to something just for the joy of it — no grade, no paycheck [and] no certificate.”

A brief disclaimer — no, Shakespeare on the Lawn is not performing on the Lawn. The organization is performing in the Student Activities Building — a small hut across the parking lot from Scott Stadium. The building will be transformed by a creative and engaging production featuring some of the best student artists on Grounds. 

Sure to delight any theatre-goer, “Much Ado About Nothing” is a cannot-miss part of the Spring 2024 semester. Admission to the show is free, and does not require any reservation in advance. “Much Ado About Nothing” runs from April 26 to 28 in the Student Activities Building. The Thursday and Friday performances begin at 7:00 p.m., while the Sunday finale is a 2 p.m. matinee. More information can be found on the Shakespeare on the Lawn Instagram. 

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