When John Chaffin decided to stage his third Shakespearean play in the Chaffin’s Barn backstage dinner theater, he knew he’d be taking a huge risk. He’d already mounted successful presentations of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but he was ready for the big gambleattracting his rural audiences to a lesser-known work by the Bard. So he launched the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, which is currently outselling both its predecessors, proving once and for all that the Barn is the only dinner theater company in America mounting straight Shakespearean productionsand making a profit on them.
For over 30 years, the Barn has catered to the meat-and-three crowd with farce and slapstick, musicals and revues, murder mysteries and romantic comedies. In fact, Shakespeare is so foreign to the Barn’s regulars that several people have called to make reservations for What to Do About Nothing.
Six days a week, 50 weeks a year, Chaffin produces and directs shows, builds sets, and at times even writes the plays himself. His wife Diane sews all the costumes, his daughter Angela works the front desk, and his son-in-law, Adam Burnett, is a regular performer. On busy nights, any one of them can be seen hauling trays of fresh food to replenish the buffet line. His actors wait tables, then hustle off to don costumes and makeup before the opening call. This down-home, neighborly atmosphere appeals to patrons who would never dream of attending a similar production at TPAC.
Chaffin annually draws 3,000 to 5,000 viewers into his 300-seat in-the-round mainstage, and he’s now nurturing 2,000 season ticket-holders, many of whom attend up to 15 shows a year. (Unlike most theaters, The Barn’s season follows the calendar year rather than a September-through-May run.) Some members of the audience have been regular customers for most of their adulthood: Every opening night for nearly 25 years, Janie Walker and her family have driven in from Santa Fe, Tenn., to occupy their favorite table next to the stage. In celebration of each new show, Walker bakes a cake and decorates it to match the play’s theme; guests get to enjoy it during intermission.
At Chaffin’s Barn, such traditions reign supreme. Each season’s roster includes two musicals and a Christmas/New Year’s show, which invariably sells out early. This holiday’s presentation is A Christmas Cactus, opening in November. “No office party wants to go see A Christmas Carol or The Little Match Girl,” Chaffin says. “Our groups want to laugh and have a good time. So we’re not taking business away [from other professional theaters]. We found our niche, and we’re staying there.”
As outstanding as some of the musicals are, they’re expensive to produce, and Chaffin regularly loses money on them. The company’s sustenance invariably comes from the wacky bedroom farces filled with mistaken identity and sexual innuendo. The current staging of Cash on Delivery, directed by longtime Barn actress Martha Wilkinson, is eliciting laughs from big crowds.
Which makes Chaffin’s insistence on giving his clients an annual dose of Elizabethan drama all the more improbable. Other dinner-theater owners warned him repeatedly that Shakespeare is too heavy-handed for season-ticket-buying localswho travel from as far away as Birmingham, Tullahoma, and Middle Kentuckyand too obtuse for the partying busloads of tourists that alight at the rustic venue. But Chaffin has parted company with his colleagues, embarking on a personal mission to make true believers out of people whose only contact with Shakespeare may have been an agonizing assignment or two in high school.
Given his tiny 60-seat backstage space, which holds no more than nine actors, Chaffin is restricted in what he can present; sets and costumes can’t be too elaborate. Although he never changes the script except to cut it down, he steers clear of subtle interpretations of the plays. If a show is renowned for its drama, Chaffin has to unearth and punch up its comedy, romance, or mystery to match his audience’s expectations. “We always do a broad production,” he says. “Why? My goal is to introduce people to Shakespeare. They go away understanding the story. Even if they don’t understand all the actual words, they get the intent. I’m trying to change the concept that Shakespeare is dull and boring.”
Brian Russell, an accomplished Shakespearean actor who has appeared in productions by Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Tennessee Repertory Theatre, and Horse Cave Theatre, stars as the inveterate bachelor Benedick in The Barn’s Much Ado. Liz Kalota portrays the fiery-tongued beauty Beatricealternately Benedick’s nemesis and his love interest. Russell handily navigates the witty dialogue, using facial gestures and vocal inflections to bring out the comedy. Although no match for Russell, Kalota holds her own as she engages in word wars with various males around her. Buckner Gibbs switches back and forth between two sibling characters, the likable hero Don Pedro and the scowling villain Don John.
Because Much Ado is already a broad comedy, the actors are always in danger of “piling on.” John Olive’s Dogberry is a case in point. Captain of the guards, Dogberry is a bumbling fool, a master of malapropism and misstatement. Olive pats his chest and barks his lines, quashing the very quirkiness that makes his character such a laugh-riot. Alexander Wolff, on the other hand, is much better at conveying the hilarious dimwittedness of the night watchman whom Dogberry enlists.
With most of the actors busting tail to portray a range of characters in quick successive scene changes, The Barn’s Much Ado is forgivably uneven. This may not be the most brilliant presentation of Shakespearebut for the uninitiated or cold-footed, it’s probably the most accessible.
Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Hwy. 100, presents Much Ado About Nothing in its backstage theater through June 6; Cash on Delivery also runs through June 6 on Chaffin’s main stage. Call 646-9977 for information or reservations.
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