LONDON - One tends to associate bearded ladies with freak shows, not fine theater.
But through Sept. 25, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre features an all-female cast performing "Much Ado About Nothing.'' That means a goateed Belinda Davison (as Don Pedro) crams her feminine curves into a corset and form-straightening black silken doublet and hose. Penelope Dimond (Antonio/Watchman) wears a long gray Fu Manchu-style beard. And the wonderful Josie Lawrence, as Benedick, gets to wield a rapier.
The gender decision is a clever twist on tradition. In Shakespeare's day, aside from a few exceptions, only men performed in the theater. It was thought women couldn't act. The lively adaptation of "Much Ado'' I saw on a recent swing through London counters any doubt about the fairer sex's stage skills.
"The plot of the play explores gender issues,'' says director Tamara Harvey. "It's a battle of the sexes.''
Harvey says the whiskers are no cross-dressing gimmick. Shakespeare's text frequently refers to facial hair - "Lord Lackbeard'' and "ornament of his cheek.''
"Putting on the beards helps add to the sense of being a man,'' says Harvey.
I hadn't reserved a ticket for the performance, but a half-hour wait before curtain yielded a standing room only - or yard - ticket for about $9 - a steal.
In Shakespeare's day, yard spectators were known as "groundlings,'' often raucous, drunk, and talking back to the actors. For Harvey today, groundlings crammed around the center of the open-air theater create a vital energy her actors respond to.
"The audience is an extra character,'' says Harvey. "I try to persuade my friends to be groundlings. The Globe on a summer's eve is quite magical.''
But modern-day peasants, beware: Groundlings are at the mercy of inclement weather, and three hours of standing takes its toll.
The original circa-1599 Globe Theatre, where many of the Bard's plays were first performed, burned down in 1613; a second was built but then demolished in 1644. The new Globe, reconstructed in 1997, is on the south bank of the Thames, close to the first one's foundation.
In "Henry V,'' Shakespeare described the theater as a "wooden `O,' '' but the Globe is actually a 20-sided structure 100 feet across. The configuration is not theater-in-the-round, with actors in the center; rather, a rectangular apron stage is set at one end, facing three tiers of seats and the groundlings. The reconstruction used period materials including handmade bricks, oak laths, and reeds for the roof thatching. Since no detailed drawings of the original Globe remain, however, much of the finish work is "best guess'' - and a source of some controversy.
"This 'reconstruction' cannot be validated as accurate despite enormous academic efforts to do so,'' says Paul Nelsen, theater professor at Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vt., and a member of the Globe reconstruction advisory committee. Nelsen says the stage, decorated with intricately carved and painted woodwork, gilded trim, and faux-marble pillars, is especially problematic. Specialists debated whether the heavily decorated stage would add or detract from the playgoers "immersion experience.''
"The Globe has its charms and much of the work involves careful attention to historicity,'' says Nelsen. Still, he notes, "much of the decor festooning the arena now is bogus ornamentation. It's hard to undo painting.''
With its handmade props and costumes also using period materials, Harvey's interpretation of ``Much Ado'' does try to revive the past. For the sake of today's audiences, pronunciation of the text is contemporary, not Elizabethan, but modern stagecraft is minimal. Two skimpy trellises provide cover for characters to eavesdrop on conversations, as the plot of ``Much Ado'' demands. Otherwise, no sets, no backdrops. Musicians play their fanfares on Renaissance instruments such as the hoboy (precursor to the oboe) and the sackbut (trombone). The modest stage lights struck me as the only obvious concession to the 21st century.
As one of 600 groundlings, I was less than 6 feet from the action. Even if some of the dialogue whizzed over my head, I felt close to the intimacies of each actress's performance - the exchanged glances and winks, the footfalls during dramatic stage crosses, all the tiny gestures that make up a convincing presence. I wanted to live in that world of rapier-like wit and sudden confessions of love.
Bravo to the Globe for transporting us back to the gender-bending 16th century.
One odd moment, however, blurred the line between the Elizabethan and post-modern ages. During Act 2, Scene III, when Claudio (Ann Ogbomo) and Don Pedro are speaking in Leonato's orchard, Claudio proclaims: "Yea, my good lord. How still the evening is, / As hush'd on purpose to grace harmony!''
At that moment, a jet screamed across the sky. Claudio paused. Both she and Don Pedro tried to stifle a smile. Then, Claudio continued his line. I mean ... her line.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a freelance writer who is based in New England. He can be reached through his website, www.ethangilsdorf.com.