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Movement director plays vital role in Commonwealth Shakespeare Co. production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Movement director plays vital role in Commonwealth Shakespeare Co. production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Levi Philip Marsman, choreographer/movement director for “Much Ado About Nothing.” PHOTO: STEVEN DUARTE

Last summer’s magnificent Free Shakespeare on the Common production of “The Tempest” by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC) featured Boston Ballet principal dancer John Lam as an incandescent Ariel, the enslaved fairy who does the bidding of Prospero. In a performance that blended deft acting and airborne dancing, Lam’s Ariel was as memorable as his master.

Levi Philip Marsman, choreographer and movement director for “The Tempest” and now for “Much Ado About Nothing,” CSC’s 2022 Free Shakespeare on the Common production, is coaching its cast of 21 in using their bodies to express characters. 

Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who recently directed the acclaimed “Mr. Parent” at the Lyric Stage, the “Much Ado” production, running July 20 through Aug. 7 on the Boston Common, sets Shakespeare’s tale of Beatrice and Benedick, whose public sparring gradually yields to love, in the 1990s.

Marsman, a graduate of the Boston Arts Academy, OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center, the Walnut Hill School for the Arts and the Ailey School, finds in ’90s hip-hop and house music a catalyst to stimulate actors to release emotion. While working on the production’s big dance pieces such as party and wedding scenes, Marsman also engages the actors in improvisational routines that trigger self-expression.

“Dance, to me, is feeling,” says Marsman, who is on the faculty of Urbanity Dance and the Ailey Extension program at the Ailey School and taught at Boston Conservatory at Berklee’s 2021 Summer Dance Intensive. “How do characters move when they’re feeling tension, desire, being the wallflower or the class clown?”

Tia James plays the role of Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” PHOTO: STEVEN DUARTE

Among the actors Marsman is coaching is Tia James, who performs the role of Benedick. On the faculty of University of North Carolina’s professional actor training program, James has performed in numerous Shakespeare plays.

“I always felt shy, introverted, growing up,” says James, who received her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and her MFA from New York University. “When my high-school drama teacher introduced me to Shakespeare, I found language for feelings I couldn’t articulate. Once you have language for what’s inside yourself, you can release it and find your flow.”

Benedick will not be her first male Shakespeare character. For PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, James played Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar,” and soon she will take the title role in that company’s production of “Hamlet.”

“Performing Marc Antony opened my mind to what I can do,” says James. “The sky’s the limit.”

Now, as Benedick, James is another soldier. “Although [Benedick] is a woman, she performs the offices of a man — as a soldier, a captain,” says James. “While getting the language in my mouth and mind, I also need a physical understanding of the character: What does it mean to be soldier? Discipline in body and mind?”

Working with Marsman and with her fellow cast members, James also brings much of herself into her role. “My Benedick will be very much a Black, queer woman,” she says. “I feel free to be who I am. The power, strength, hilarity and creativity of Black women are not always at forefront. This will be an opportunity for people to see how she challenges wrongdoing, has fun, contemplates love. Our Benedick will show all these nuances.”

arts, Boston theater, Free Shakespeare on the Common, theater