Much to love in ‘Much Ado’ for Lydia Barnett-Mulligan

Lydia Barnett-Mulligan has been studying and performing Shakespeare since she was 15 years old. The actor, director, and education artist got her start via the educational program at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA.
She’s now a member of the Resident Acting Company at Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston. Add credits from Tennessee Shakespeare Company, Elm Shakespeare Company (New Haven), Bay Colony Shakespeare, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and Shakespeare Now and you’ve got an artist who can easily see all the world as a stage.
(In a well rounded career, she’s also has taken on quite a few roles not written by The Bard.)
She’s currently playin Hero in “Much Ado About Nothing” at Actors’ Shakespeare Project. Performances at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge run through May 6.
“Much Ado” is described as one of the wittiest of Shakespeare’s comedies, shining its spotlight on the giddiness of the game of love, tempered by conspiracy.
Director Christopher V. Edwards has set the play in the contemporary world of an abstracted orchard. He has noted that the production focuses on the intricacies of human interactions when love and free will clash at a garden party, a wedding and a funeral.
In another twist, Hero and Claudio, written as female and male, have been re-envisioned as two women. Edwards states that “Much Ado” explores the cunning and mischief that can unravel reputations and couples of any gender.
Growing up in Chatham in upstate New York, Lydia was home schooled before heading off to Williams College where she earned a B.A. with Honors in Theatre and English. We spoke about her work and the play prior to a long stretch of rehearsal. Here’s an edited look at our conversation:
Q. 15 is an unusual age to develop an affinity for Shakespeare. Most kids that age are struggling just to get through the text in English class.
A. I gotta plug Shakespeare & Company . . . The teachers there were just extraordinary. I felt like they made it so fun and accessible for teens. The thing they always say, which we also say at Actors’ Shakespeare Project, is that these huge thoughts and ideas that Shakespeare is writing about, teenagers know them better than anybody.
Q. How so?
A. Like when you’re a teenager and you’re falling in love for the first time ever. Who knows that better than Romeo and Juliet? You’re maybe getting pissed off at your family and running away from home. Or feeling like you’re so mad you want to kill somebody . . . When you’re a teen, that’s the time when there’s so much passion and so much capacity for that stuff.
Q. You also use your training in the classroom.
A. I do educational work with Actors’ Shakespeare Project and I really see in these youth the same sort of thing that I was experiencing. They say, ‘I’m having so many feelings and so many emotions. And finally someone‘s given me some language for it’ . . . If you can make the match between teenagers and Shakespeare, it’s a match made in heaven. The problem is that when we approach it in the classroom, you’re totally right, it can be boring if we’re just sittin’ around trying to read it silently in our heads and not get up and act it out. And that’s my speech! (Laughing) It’s one of my passions!
Q. This production is different in that it’s re-set in a contemporary world.
A. Chris, our director, said he really wants it to be like it’s us jumping into the character on the night of the show. So when the audience comes in, they’re going to see us getting ready, warming up, chatting, shooting the breeze with each other . . . For me, the most fun part of the contemporary setting is that we have some pop music incorporated into the show . . . I think it’s faithful to Shakespeare in that Shakespeare was always throwing in whatever the latest pop song was of his time . . . It’s really fun and feels really fresh.
Q. Do you have a favorite moment in the show.
A. That’s a lovely question. Right now, there’s a moment where all the soldiers have come back from the war and there’s a party. It’s a kind of a crazy scene with a lot going on, but it’s a scene were Hero and Claudio are catching each other’s eyes from across the room. That’s a scene that I’m really enjoying. It’s making me think of the first little hints of falling in love with someone. We also get to do a really fun dance!
Q. Did you have an interest in performing even before joining Shakespeare and Company?
A. We had a big barn in the house where I grew up and we would put on plays. Like self producing, doing our own thing. Things I would not be brave enough to do now as an adult in Boston where the rent is so high. But with free theater space and lots of 10- and 11-year-old actors who didn’t need salaries, we produced a lot of shows.
Q. Like Mickey and Judy in the barn?
A. Exactly! (Laughing) It was exactly like that!
Q. What do you know about your heritage?
A. My great-grandmother came from Ireland around the time of the potato famine, to Brooklyn. My grandparents met in Brooklyn. They were both sort of newly transported families from Ireland. The Mulligans and the Cartys . . . I watched (the movie “Brooklyn”) with my parents and I think it really resonated with what my grandparents’ experience was. They met as little kids growing up on the same block in this part of Brooklyn that was all people from Ireland . . . It gave me this window into a part of my heritage that I was curious about and didn’t know a lot about.
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of
“Much Ado About Nothing,” Actors’ Shakespeare Project, through May 6, Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second Street, Cambridge. Info: 866-811-4111 or