William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is about wit as much as it’s about love. It’s the sharp-tongued lovers Beatrice and Benedick who come most readily to mind when we think of the play, but their clever protestations of mutual dislike, which conceal genuine affection, aren’t meaty enough to sustain a whole play. Their story is essentially a subplot to that of Claudio, the right-hand man of Don Pedro, with whom he has just returned to Messina victorious from war, and Hero, the daughter of Leonato, Messina’s governor. The young lovers are all set to marry until Hero is accused of being unfaithful.
Hero’s apparent crime is a scheme engineered by Don John, the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, who seems to be the only person in the play who doesn’t want to see love prevail. So what’s it like to play the villain in a romantic comedy?
“I let the audience decide whether he’s the villain,” says Parnelli Parnes, who’s playing Don John, on a break at the Vancouver Playhouse production office, where he and the company are rehearsing Much Ado for its Saturday (June 12) opening at Bard on the Beach. “I’m just playing a character; I’m just trying to justify all the choices the character makes in the play,” he says, adding that he tries to avoid falling into a trap of playing a stereotypical bad guy.
But he acknowledges that Don John is the engine of the plot. “He makes something out of nothing and is the driving force behind the whole play’s problems,” says Parnes. “It’s fun seeing everybody’s whole world all of a sudden shift after I plant the seed in Claudio’s mind that Hero might not be as virtuous and pure as he first sees her.”
This is Parnes’s fifth season at Bard on the Beach. The actor, who graduated from Studio 58 seven years ago, has also worked on a lot of new plays, and he recognizes the unique challenges and opportunities that Shakespeare’s texts provide.
“I still feel like an idiot with Shakespeare,” he admits. “It’s hard, at times, and that’s a good thing, to try to mine and understand the thoughts, because Shakespeare’s language—it’s not what we do every day.
“It’s a little bit different than doing a contemporary play where you can put in beats,” he continues, “but with this you’ve got to think on the thoughts. There isn’t thinking before you speak or after you speak; you’ve got to be really, really on top of everything. So it’s a good exercise to do it, and in the five years that I’ve been here, I think I’m getting a little bit better.”
Another boost came from his participation in the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre, a training program at Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in 2004. There, he worked alongside some of the country’s finest actors, not only on Shakespeare’s texts, but on some more recent classics. Parnes describes Seana McKenna, with whom he performed in Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending, as a significant inspiration in his career. “There you see passion and precision at its finest,” he enthuses. “I still remember this one day she was sick, she had bronchitis or something, so she hadn’t come for two or three days, and then she came in and she was still tired. It was just rehearsal, but we all felt, ”˜Oh my god, this is electric,’,” Parnes recalls. “She was able to use her own self, her own pain, and channel it into the character’s pain. She’s an open vessel.”
Another influence was Zinaid Memisevic, a highly esteemed actor from the former Yugoslavia with whom Parnes performed in Wajdi Mouawad’s Tideline in 2007. Memisevic hadn’t acted in over a decade when he took on the role, his first in Canada. “What I saw in him was his emotional weight and his openness to the whole experience to give as a gift,” Parnes recalls. “He wasn’t trying to be emotional, but he just reverberated. He’s just present, that’s the word.”
Parnes has recently been branching out beyond acting: learning the ropes of production through an Artistic Leadership grant that enabled him to work at the Firehall Arts Centre, teaching a business class at Studio 58, and volunteering on other companies' boards. “I don’t want to value myself as just an actor,” he says, “I want to value myself as an artist.”
But he’s still committed to acting, and is coy when asked if there are any characters that he dreams of playing. “I’m a bit superstitious,” he confesses, fearing that “if you talk about something too much it doesn’t happen.” He hints that he’d relish the standard juicy roles, but also appreciates the challenge of smaller parts. “You get those full arcs, those big journeys, when you’re playing the larger roles,” he observes. “And I find it tough at times when you’re playing the smaller roles, especially when you’re doing 40 to 50 shows: how do you stay engaged when you’re just walking on and listening?” Driving the scene is energizing, he says, “but how do you invigorate yourself when you’re the person being the supportive witness?”
That’s not likely to be a problem with Don John, who’s only too happy to stir the pot in this frothy romantic comedy. Without his scheming, there wouldn’t be much ado at all.