When Shakespeare wrote that "all the world's a stage," he was, of course, not referring to the Blackbird Theatre. Yet it's an apt description of Ann Arbor's newest theater. At the Blackbird the playhouse shares space with the playroom — of a preschool, that is. What serves by day as the gym of the Children's Creative Center is by night the stage of the Blackbird. The cheerful chaos and decor of the preschool, with its colorfully painted walls and a Toys R Us inventory, is converted dramatically with theater lighting, black curtains covering the walls and windows, and chairs on risers for audiences.
CCC has long been staging an annual summer musical as part of its youth drama program, but five years ago CCC owner Laurie Atwood and Blackbird artistic director Barton Bund began offering adult theater throughout the year. The current season includes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Angels in America, Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers, and Wednesday through Sunday, March 26-30, an all-teen production of Much Ado about Nothing.
Tailoring the classic to teens, Bund has reimagined the play as a lighthearted spring-break beach comedy — Messina is now Jamaica — complete with beach blankets, air mattresses, tanning mirrors, shorts, and Hawaiian shirts. You can almost smell the suntan lotion.
In the first scene, Don Pedro and his men "surf" ashore, where Leonato greets them in a Jamaican accent: "Let me bid you welcome, mon." Later scenes unfold at a tourist hotel. When Hero and her handmaiden Ursula conspire to convince Beatrice that Benedick loves her, the scene is staged in the "pool" with the actresses "floating" on rafts made of wheeled children's scooters.
And what's a beach comedy without surf music? Here a reggae rhythm guitar riff backs "Sigh no more, ladies."
It all works, and on several levels. Shakespeare, endlessly malleable, takes on unexpected dimensions when acted by eleven-to-seventeen-year-olds. Watching the initial fight/flirt between Beatrice and Benedick, you can easily picture the scene happening in Huron or Pioneer High's cafeteria, the sparring duo egged on by their friends. It works the other way too: you can imagine the actors not only portraying their characters in the play but also playacting the roles of the adults they soon will be.
And if one can desire too much, or at least more, of a good thing, at the Blackbird the play's not the only thing. The proceeds all go to benefit Kidz in Need, CCC's scholarship program that helps needy children receive quality preschool and after-school care. Now that's much ado about something.
[Review published March 2008]