Chapter One: Much Ado

Out in the woods, a trumpet sounds. Then sounds again, louder and closer. Up on the bridge that looms over center stage, young Hero appears in a pouffy peach dress. She looks off toward the sound as though she is waiting for something. Could this be it? Music begins—an oboe line floating prettily over a bed of nervous strings. Behind Hero comes her cousin Beatrice in a simple wine-red dress. Older and wiser, she gazes with amusement at her agitated cousin as a servant enters from the wings stage left. He looks up at Hero with a question in his eyes: where is her father Leonato? As if in answer, Leonato enters stage right. He is a rich gentleman, dressed in an ornate black suit, with thick muttonchops and a wavy mane of silver hair. The servant beckons him urgently across stage. He is needed; something is happening. They exit stage left as Hero and Beatrice descend the stairs from the bridge. Almost immediately Leonato is back, followed by a messenger in military uniform. Leonato holds a sheet of paper in his hand and reads from it. “I learn in this letter that Don Pedro of Aragon comes this night to Messina.” Thus begins American Players Theatre’s 2014 production of Much Ado About Nothing.

David Frank, the director, choreographs from the fourth row. He stands on the balls of his feet, arms stretched out before him, thumbs touching forefingers. He rotates his right wrist so his palm faces upward. He beckons Hero forward by drawing his hand in toward his chest. He waves in the servant, pushes Leonato across the stage to his exit, then waves them back with the messenger and a few more members of the household. He lowers a hand to bring down the music and cues Leonato to speak.

Except there is no Leonato, no actors at all, no costumes, no lights, no audience but a few staffers scattered through the outdoor theater. The only people onstage are the props crew, who are patiently applying plastic foliage to a metal fence on the set. Up in the thirteenth row, at a table sheltered from the sun by beach umbrellas, composer John Tanner and sound technician John Leahy are huddled over a MacBook Pro, setting volume levels for the opening music and sound cues. Leahy taps a key and the music rolls over the empty seats and out into the woods. David Frank requests an adjustment and the music plays again. And again, while Frank waves up the imaginary lights and conducts the timing of his invisible actors. He can see it all in his head. He has two more weeks to get it onstage where 1,100 paying customers can see it too.

Will he be able to stifle the “most famous laugh line in the play”? Will his lead actor succeed in his first big romantic role? Will Frank’s relationship with the set designer, a longtime friend and collaborator, survive to see another play? Will the critics like the show? Will the audience come? Will the weather cooperate? How many pairs of pants will the leading man ruin? On this sunny afternoon in June, all remains to be seen.

The work began about ten months ago, in late summer of 2013.  By the time the theater’s outdoor season ends on October 5, the show will have been performed 27 times for a potential audience of about 31,000 people. It will involve a cast of 22 actors playing 27 roles, plus an artistic and production staff of 7, including a choreographer, a composer-sound designer, a costume and set designer, a lighting designer, and a voice and text coach. It will require 46 costumes, 14 wigs, and a wardrobe staff to clean, repair, and restyle the costumes and wigs as necessary for each performance. The show will be played on a multilevel set made almost entirely by carpenters and craftsmen in the company’s employ. It will have to support the weight and antics of the actors and yet come apart in little more than half an hour, and fold up into a storage space the size of a small bedroom. The theater’s staff numbers about 200 people at the height of the season. As they learn the lines and sew the dresses and make the wigs and build the set for this production, they will do the same for four other plays: Romeo and Juliet, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, David Mamet’s American Buffalo, and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. And when those shows are up and running, they will mount three more. By mid-August they will have eight plays in rotation, and in October they’ll cap the season with a ninth.

Like the man said: much ado.