Behind the words of UNF Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” adaptation

Carter Mudgett, Editor in Chief

When “all the world’s a stage,” writing a play can be daunting, but how about taking a play by William Shakespeare, editing and then sticking it on a stage? University of North Florida Shakespeare did just that, debuting its adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” last week. 

Originally published in 1623, the play is a comedy set in Messina, Italy. The story centers around two romantic pairings: one between Claudio and Hero and another between Claudio’s friend Benedick and Hero’s cousin Beatrice. 

UNF Shakespeare’s adaptation happens in Italy post-World War II, instead of Shakespeare-era Messina. Though faculty-run and not a UNF club, UNF Shakespeare has student leadership. 

Some of the lead roles were Claudio, played by Janson Cobiella, who was also on the script team; Hero, played by Piper Leistman; Benedick played by Evan Lepore; and Beatrice, played by Christine Casey. For the full cast list, visit here

“Theatre is an interdisciplinary art,” said Dr. Maureen McCluskey, the director and one of UNF Shakespeares’s faculty advisors. Because they work together with recent alumni, current students and faculty, Dr. McClusky said it’s an “educational theatre program.”

A five-person script team — Will Pewitt, one of the faculty advisors, recent UNF alumni Jade Marino and Janson Cobiella and current seniors Emma Avros and Nathan Turoff — adapted the play. 

“The script team’s goal is to render Shakespeare into something a modern audience can understand,” Avros explained, a UNF senior double majoring in psychology and creative writing. “Even if they don’t catch all of the fancy words and superfluous metaphors.”

Starting the process

First, the actual words had to be finalized. Details like setting, tone and how modernized the play should be all had to be settled on far before the production cast any characters. 

Those discussions alone took “well over a month, nearly every weekday for several hours at a time,” said Will Pewitt, UNF Shakespeare’s other faculty advisor and an English instructor. The group read, researched and discussed a variety of edits to create the final script. 

When they fell in love with specific lines, they emphasized them with stage directions. With a four-century gap from its original creation to the present day, there were sections that the team updated to “replace archaic language,” Pewitt said. 

Of course, another factor to consider was how they would retain Shakespeare’s famous iambic pentameter, even with the new language. Character arcs and specific themes were blended in as time wore on. 

“We also aim to help modern audiences understand the characters, not just the plot,” said Avros.

Blending old elements with new

There were some significant changes to the characters in the play, namely with Claudio — a WWII veteran who fought as a Partisan freedom fighter against the Italian fascist party — and Hero. 

In the original play, Claudio publicly humiliates Hero at the altar before her father, Leonato (played by Chase Hartman, a recent UNF and Spinnaker alumni), berates and assaults her, explained Cobiella, who also performed as Claudio during the play. Her father decided that she should be hidden away until she was discreetly married to Claudio in disguise. 

“Our challenge was to tell a better story,” Cobiella said.

They wanted Hero to have agency and “take control of her own destiny,” demanding accountability from Claudio, he said. But, even with the character’s mistakes, Cobiella noted that the team wanted the audience to see Claudio’s and Hero’s genuine, caring connection despite his mistreatment of her. 

“Claudio is a victim too, after all,” he said of his character. “He fought to save the world from fascism, but the war followed him home.”

With the script acting as the “architecture” of the play, the cast used it as a springboard, said Dr. McCluskey. Between the script, composers, those behind the scenes and, of course, the actual cast, they worked to “craft a unified version of the show,” she said. 

‘What changed?’ may be one of the first questions that come to mind when you hear “adaptation.” So, what did ultimately happen? Well, you’ll have to watch the show for that. 

Across nine different venues, the play has been accessible to not just the entire campus community but the greater Jacksonville community as well, Dr. McCluskey said. 

The group’s final performance is at 2 p.m. in the UNF Library on Saturday, April 22. 

Can’t make it? Click the link below to watch Spinnaker TV’s video of UNF Shakespeare’s live performance or visit here and tune in at 3 p.m. on any Saturday to listen to the performance live on Spinnaker’s Radio station. To read the “Much Ado About Nothing” playbill and learn more about the full cast, visit here


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