Much Ado About Queering Shakespeare: Megan Sandberg-Zakian on this Summer's Free Play on Boston Common

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday July 24, 2022
Originally published on June 29, 2022

Since 1996, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has impressed Boston residents and visitors each summer with high-caliber productions of Shakespearean plays presented free of charge and out of doors on the iconic Boston Common.

Now a long-standing tradition in its own right, the annual Free Shakespeare on the Common is anything but stodgy, and this summer's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" is a prime example. In a fun, queer twist, Benedick and Beatrice — famously sharp-witted characters who enjoy a "merry war" of caustic putdowns — but who secretly are in love with each other — have been reimagined by director Megan Sandberg-Zakian: In this telling, the battling duo are two women.

Starring Tia James as Benedick and Rachael Warren as Beatrice — not to mention a host of other Boston stage veterans, including John Kuntz, Remo Airaldi, Debra Wise, Michael Underhill, Jon Vellante, and more than a dozen others — the cast, and creative team as well, is a showcase of talent.

Sandberg-Zakian, a Seattle native, has long been a Boston transplant, and she's deeply embedded in the area's theater scene, having — as her website notes — "served as the Associate Artistic Director of Underground Railway Theater (Cambridge, MA), [and] the Providence Black Repertory Company (RI)," as well as having been "Director-in-Residence at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA" (not to mention the work she's done in that other big theater city, NYC, at The 52nd Street Project).

She is also the author of "There Must Be Happy Endings: On a Theater of Optimism and Honesty," which examines the social and cultural importance of theater.

If you've seen the Kenneth Branagh film version of "Much Ado About Nothing" (or, probably, most any stage production of the play), you know of its capacity to enchant and delight. Sandberg-Zakian, who describes herself as a queer woman, brings a fresh new lens to the work through which to examine concepts like valor and virtue, as well as love, that reside at its core.

EDGE chatted with Megan Sandberg-Zakian about what it means to re-envision Benedick and Beatrice as a same-sex couple, how a switch in gender throws previously-unseen qualities of the work into relief, and what it means to her to bring a show like this to the people of Boston in a setting like the Common on a summer's evening.

EDGE: How did you come to direct this summer's CSC "Free Shakespeare on the Common" offering?

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: Steve [Maler] and Bryn [Boice], the Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, knew they wanted to do "Much Ado" this summer. We had been looking for a way to work together for a while, so when they approached me and asked about my thoughts on the play, it was just really exciting. And I think they were excited by my perspective on this particular play, so when it worked out for it to happen, I was very excited.

EDGE: Was the idea of making both Benedick and Beatrice two women something that you had brought to them as part of your perspective on this play?

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: Yeah. The idea came from when I started revisiting the play in my mind and thinking about, "What are the questions that I have about what's happening in this beautiful text?" I had a couple of big questions about it. One of them was, "Why did these two people, who are so clearly meant for each other, not feel safe to admit their feelings?" And from my own personal experience, in terms of being a being a queer woman who didn't get in touch with my queerness until I felt like it was a little safer to do so, that really resonated with me. And the fact that it takes the community around them saying, like, "This is a great idea!" You know, these two people are meant to be together. These two people are great, they should be allowed to open up the space for them to feel those feelings. It just made sense to me.

EDGE: There's this thing about Benedict swaggering with the boys all the time, and Beatrice mocks him for always having a new brother among his band of soldiers. How do you bring all that into the text from this perspective?

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: In our production, Benedick is a military person and she is really in touch with her own power, her own authority, her own aggression, and definitely, I think, is out as a queer woman. She's in a space of being frustrated with relationships, and not having a lot of trust for intimacy or for love, feeling like relationships never work out. She's someone who, given her military experience and as her profession, definitely has that swagger that you're talking about — has that kind of confidence.

And Beatrice... this is our fourth day of rehearsal, so don't hold me to all of it, but I think what it's looking like is that Beatrice is less in touch with her sexuality. She's not in the military, she's lived in a more domestic space, and in a space where she's encountered more traditional, feminine heterosexism expectations of her. She's kind of grappling with that. She isn't fully out even to herself.

EDGE: Beatrice and Benedick's is one of the great comedic relationships in English literature. Have you had to change the text much to accommodate your take on the story? Or is it all in the direction and the acting?

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: We're changing pronouns; in the text Benedick is a woman and there's another number of other characters that are different, played by actors of a different gender than they are in the original Shakespeare and we've swapped the pronouns. But other than that, no, we're not changing the text at all. I think it actually plays pretty fluidly with the original Shakespeare text.

EDGE: When you were casting, what were you looking for in the personal energy, individually, and also the chemistry between your two leads?

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: First and foremost, I was looking for actors who are fantastic with the language. These two characters, as you said, have some of the greatest comic and romantic language in all of Shakespeare, and I was lucky enough to have two great Shakespearean actresses say yes to me who are just fantastic — great with comedy, great with poetry, soulful, moving, funny, incredible actors. Rachael Warren [as Beatrice] and Tia James [as Benedick] are just incredible.

And it was important to me that they both identified as queer, which they do. That's not something that you necessarily know when you're casting, but the ideas that they brought into the room during the audition process, and the way that they understood these characters as queer women, was really moving to me. During the audition process we had them do the scene together where, you know, Beatrice and Benedick first admit their love for each other, and all of us that were watching the audition were crying. As a queer woman in my 40s it's not only their gender, but also their age, that feels really moving to me. It was clear to me that they understood these characters and they understood their journey, as well as being unbelievably skilled actors from a craft perspective.

I am really pleased that I found two people who are incredibly generous and full of integrity, as well as understanding the characters and being extraordinary performers. We're really, really lucky with the leads. I think folks that come to see it are just going to be blown away by the two of them.

EDGE: Making that change, so that Beatrice and Benedick are two women, must give you whole new avenues for interpretation.

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: I mean, I guess! Yeah, in the sense that both of these characters are women, and they're having conversations about what it means to challenge someone, or be a man. What does it mean to threaten violence, or what does it mean to critique someone for not being virtuous? Those conversations take on a whole other level of complexity, really interesting complexity, when they're happening between two women. I think they bring to mind some of the ways that we still keep gender roles on a binary, even in same-gender relationships, and the ways that we can characterize people as being someone who's active, or being someone who's passive, and those have to do with gender roles regardless of what pronouns the person uses.

EDGE: Did that open up conversations with your cast about where in the gender spectrum these characters may fall?

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: Some very rich and interesting conversations, for sure. The actors identify on the spectrum of gender and sexuality in all different ways. I can't speak to all the conversations that have been had, or will be had, but the consensus, I think, is that the play offers a really rich invitation for those conversations that we're having as a culture right now, so that the play opens us up to conversations about trust and betrayal and deception and truth, which are interesting to consider in the light of, like, someone who is in the closet, or someone who asks these questions of, "Who do we appear to be to the world? Who are we really in our true most authentic selves?"

EDGE: I'm sure that these questions and explorations are going to be rich and rewarding all through the rehearsal process, and probably all through the production of the play. You'll probably be finding new things with every performance.

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think our goal really is to make something that the entire city of Boston can find themselves in and feel connected to. The play is not a piece of dry academic theory. For me, it's a celebration of love and of community, so that the choices we're making, ultimately, are about celebrating love and community, and finding ways for these characters to do that.

EDGE: You are, of course, presenting this play in the open air of the Common, so, in a broader sense, what other adaptations or differences in approach have you brought to this production, given the outdoor venue?

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: The fact that it's outside on the Common and that the whole city of Boston is invited for free influences my desire for the piece to be grounded in joy and celebration and community. That's the biggest thing. Not that we're shying away from the darker or more complex elements of the play, but that the overall feeling and the takeaway wants to have this kind of scope and joy and celebration to it, because of the scope and joy and celebration of the public space of the Common.

And then, in terms of the production elements, being outside it's always so fun for Shakespeare, and especially in the plays that feel like they could take place outside. This is one like that, for sure. I do think that we'll be setting the play mostly on the grounds of Leonardo's house, and there's a real pleasure to being outside and not just pretending to be outside. It gives a bit of extra fun to all the different elements of the play, where people are overhearing things and sort of hiding and being discovered — or not being discovered. That's a fun thing to lean into.

One of the things we've talked about a lot from a technical standpoint is the fact that the set for the play is like a sculpture piece in the middle of the Common even when we're not performing. It's kind of like an installation in the middle of the city, so we did think a lot about how we could make something that looks kind of cool even when the play isn't happening, and sort of elegant and beautiful, and nice to look at. I think we have achieved that.

At the end of every performance on that set, it's all lit up and beautiful in celebration of love. Folks are gonna feel that. You'll get that feeling of beauty that you get that's more expansive than if you're inside a theater. To me, the feeling of beauty and love and connection becomes about the Common, and about the city of Boston, rather than just about the particular story of the play.

"Much Ado About Nothing" runs July 20 - Aug. 7 on the Boston Common. For tickets and more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.