“Much Ado About Nothing” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies and it makes me nervous when I see a play like “Much Ado About Nothing,” of which I have seen so many versions. I am tempted to think “been there done that.” It’s a little harder to win me over in these circumstances. So, while there were parts of this production I didn’t love as much as other productions I have seen, there were parts of this production that became new favorites.
The story itself is fun, easy to follow, joyful, hopeful, earthy and funny. Don Pedro, the prince of Aragon (Larry Bull), arrives in Messina with his soldiers fresh off a victory and ready for merriment. They stay with Leonato, the governor of Messina (Peter Lohnes), and his beautiful daughter Hero (Leslie Lank) and clever confirmed bachelorette niece, Beatrice (Kim Martin-Cotten) at their country estate.
With the prince are the lord of Padua, Benedick (Ben Livingston), the prince’s bastard brother, Don John, and Claudio, a young lord. Benedick, who is long time verbal sparring partner of Beatrice, immediately commences his “merry war” of words with her while Claudio and Hero fall instantly in love.
But neither Claudio and Hero’s shotgun love affair nor Benedick and Beatrice’s comical falling into love is an easy journey. And so, while it is easy to expect a playful high spirited romp, there are moments that bring the darkness of jealousy and betrayal to the stage.
The set, which represents the estate, is probably one of my least favorites at the festival this year; I have seen some pretty elaborate Much Ado About Nothing sets and I just could not quite reconcile the more contemporary panels that reflected photos or paintings of fall trees in the background with the 1599 Italian countryside setting.
However, the exception to this is the giant two-story tree that almost becomes its own character in the play, so central is it to this production’s story line. I was in awe of Benedick’s and Beatrice’s athletic prowess as they hugged the tree like a giant squirrel, swung from its branches and hid in plain sight as they eavesdropped on conversations.
Despite the overall visual simplicity of the set, I was impressed with the economy of the props and set design (Scott Davis). There was not one prop that was not used to its full advantage in this play that mastered the art of physical comedy. Kudos to director David Ivers for finding every opportunity to use every square inch of the Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre stage and every prop to bring humor and details to this play. This energetic production is full of action from open to close and there is not one sleepy moment in Ivers’ production.
At the top of my list of acting favorites in this play is Benedick. I could not stop laughing at Livingston’s portrayal of Benedick. Livingston has a full arsenal of tricks up his sleeve to delight and surprise audience members. He makes Shakespeare easy to understand by using every gesture and body movement to reveal Benedick as the lovable scoundrel he is. In truth, Livingston may be my favorite Benedick I have seen so far (and that includes Kiefer Sutherland).
Martin-Cotten’s Beatrice is indeed “merry” as she flings her verbal barbs through an ever present grin. It would be easy to dislike Beatrice if she were not so lovable in her loyalty, wit, and teasing nature.
The men really owned the stage in this “Much Ado.” J. Todd Adams’ wicked Don John was instantly smarmy and conniving (just as he should be). Luigi Sottile’s Claudio was ruggedly charming as a young soldier struck by love at first sight and Lohnes’ Leonato was so utterly likable as a doting father, friend and host it was gut wrenching to watch him turn into a shamed father at one point.
USF Founder Fred Adams makes a visit to the stage this year as Verges and as usual delights the audience with his antics as companion to the ridiculous Dogberry (played by John Plumpis). Plumpis’ Dogberry may also be one of my new favorite “Much Ado” characters. In the past this character has often become tedious to me as he makes a fool of himself and his constable duties. But I loved Plumpis’ Dogberry. He was a great catalyst for laughter in this play already full of comedic moments.
On the surface this story seems very shallow, but in reality the characters and the story line have hidden depths. There is a reason this play continues to be a favorite among Shakespeare fans and the festival has honored its reputation as Shakespearean experts with this production. Be prepared to laugh and fall in love with this comedic romance.
I would consider this play appropriate for most ages. The story line does reference sexual unfaithfulness, but is not overtly sexual. It contains some bawdy humor as Shakespeare usually does.