Delaware ministers take turns on stage in Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Delaware Shakespeare players entertain a big crowd at Rockwood Park in 2017's performance of Henry V. (Alessandra Nicole/Delaware Shakespeare)

Delaware Shakespeare players entertain a big crowd at Rockwood Park in 2017's performance of Henry V. (Alessandra Nicole/Delaware Shakespeare)

If a real Friar Francis were to have walked off the stage at the Globe Theatre and practiced his faith in public, he most likely would have been arrested and executed. Such was the fate of anyone who deviated from the Protestant orthodoxy of Elizabethan England.

Fortunately, that fate won’t befall the Rev. Brian Lewis, associate pastor of St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church in Wilmington. Lewis is one of seven faith leaders from the local community who will play the part of the good friar over the next two weeks in the Delaware Shakespeare’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” opening July 13, at Rockwood Park.

Other participants include Rabbi Michael Beals of Congregation Beth Shalom, the Rev. Edwin Estevez of Grace Methodist Church, the Rev. Roberta Finkelstein of the First Unitarian Universalist Church, the Rev. Emma Horn of First Presbyterian Church in Newark, Dr. Todd Townsend of The Resurrection Center and David Savage, a lay leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), in the Wilmington area.

“We wanted to make sure we had a mix of genders and faiths,” said David Stradley, the company’s producing artistic director. “I had a personal relationship with Rabbi Beals because of a project we’re doing in the fall and he kind of jumped at the opportunity.”

Stradley got the idea of getting the faith leaders involved from last year’s community tour which featured the play “As You Like It.” The company didn’t have enough actors to cast the role of Jacques de Boys, who appears at the end of the play bringing the news of Duke Frederick’s reformation. Stradley enlisted a member of the audience at each performance to play the role and said the result was so powerful he wanted to duplicate the experience in the company’s summer production. That’s when he and director Bi Jean Ngo hit on the idea of having faith leaders play the role of Friar Francis.

“We were invested in finding an interesting and powerful way to connect with the community,” he said.

Like Jacques de Boys, Friar Francis appears at the end of the play. It’s a small role (he speaks fewer than 85 lines) but a pivotal one. “The Friar is the agent of change in terms of the second half of the play,” said Ngo who is making her directorial debut with this production.

Indeed, Friar Francis becomes the voice of reason in volatile turn of events. He comes up with a clever deception that may seem out of character for a holy man, but in the process transforms a tragedy into a comedy and saves the honor of an innocent maiden.

“It fits quite nicely with what Christ told his disciples,” said Lewis. “Be as innocent as doves but as cunning as serpents.”

The faith leaders will bring something of themselves and their faith to the role. “We told them at the first rehearsal that we’re not looking for great Shakespearean actors,” said Stradley. “We simply want your experience as a faith leader in the community.”

Each faith leader will be referred to by his or her name in the production and will wear something emblematic of their faith. Lewis will don a white alb, cope and a rope cincture, just like one Friar Francis might have worn. Rev. Horn will appear in a preaching robe that arose out of the historic Protestant Reformation. Dr. Townsend will perform in a magenta-colored bishop’s robe.

“It has 33 buttons down the front,” he explained. “One for each of Christ’s years on earth.”

Audiences will notice the biggest changes the night Beals performs. The rabbi will use a traditional Jewish chuppah for the wedding ceremony. The canopy will be carried onstage by four of the company’s high school interns, with the young men wearing yarmulkes.

Stradley said Beals’ appearance also required some minor script edits to accommodate his Judaism. “We changed ‘Holy Rites” to ‘ceremonies’ and ‘chapel’ to ‘chuppah,’” he said.

Beals says he hopes Shakespeare can stand the changes. “There’s so much humor in it,” he said. “My sentiment is in these difficult times, the more positive associations people have with Judaism, to quote my father ‘It couldn’t hoit.’ ”

Like Friar Francis, many of the faith leaders have had to be the voice of reason in a calamitous situation. Beals recalls the time he had to calm a distraught mother of a bride who had converted to Judaism for her wedding. The mother feared that because her daughter was no longer a Christian, they would not be able to meet in heaven after death.

“I told her that Christian heaven seems exclusive, let’s leave it at that,” he said. “But Jewish heaven is open and you can come to visit her any time. You will always have access and it will be great. Only good people go to Jewish heaven.”

Townsend remembers the time he had to conduct a funeral without a body. “The funeral director refused to release the body to the family,” he said. “The family became emotional and was ready to go out into the ceremony and express their feelings. I said ‘Let’s not create chaos. Let’s just proceed with the ceremony as though everything’s normal.’ I was able to calm the family but I’ll never forget that day. That was difficult.”

The faith leaders say the production has given them the opportunity to reach out beyond the confines of their respective houses of worship.“

”It’s so easy to get busy with church stuff that we don’t turn outward and see what’s going on in the rest of the world,” said Horn. “This is a nice way of saying there’s a whole world outside the work of the church and that is the work of the church too, to be part of the community we’re in.”

Delaware Shakespeare’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing” runs July 13 – 29 at Rockwood Park on Washington Street Extension in Wilmington. For more information about times and dates and to purchase tickets, visit www.delshakes.org or email info@delshakes.org.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.