True confession time: Perhaps it’s sacrilege to admit this but I often find Shakespeare’s comedies annoying. They can rely too heavily on tired gimmicks that really work my nerves-like all those girls disguised as boys, too much mistaken identity, long-lost twin brothers who wash up on shore after shipwrecks but who never resemble their siblings, and that never-ending parade of dim-witted peasants cracking ancient bawdy puns.
So happily I report that Much Ado About Nothing, Oak Park Festival Theatre’s first of two summer productions, does not include the usual Shakespearean comedy devices. It’s set in the Renaissance but, frankly, feels rather modern.
The ironic title implies the play concerns something insignificant, which is really not true. It’s about love and friendship-hardly meaningless topics. But it is a darker comedy than the Bard usually wrote. In fact, Much Ado-potentially a revenge drama that could show what might happen if jealousy and mistrust get the better of lovers-is not as laugh-out-loud funny as other Shakespeare comedies. But that’s not such a bad thing.
Festival Theatre’s artistic director, Jack Hickey, did a superb job pruning and mounting this show. There’s none of that fancy, overblown British line delivery one sometimes encounters with lesser companies trying to appear authentic. Hickey’s large and solid cast makes every phrase sound natural, like modern conversation.
Shakespearean plot summaries are deadly dull to read, so I’ll try to cut to the chase.
After a war, playful Don Pedro (Stanton Davis) visits his stepbrother Don John (Anthony Blanco) and two young lords, long-time close friends Benedick (Kevin Theis) and Claudio (Steve Lenz.)
Quickly there are two sets of couples providing romantic as well as comic interest. Benedick, an arrogant, jolly chatterbox, is a confirmed bachelor. His pride does not allow him to admit he loves Beatrice (Katie Jeep), who is strong-willed and feisty.
Claudio, however, falls quickly and madly in love with Hero (Brianne Wilson), the sweet daughter of well-to-do nobleman Leonato (David Elliott), who is also guardian of his orphaned niece Beatrice. (Got all that? If not, no matter. Like any good comic melodrama, the storyline keeps being reinforced in nearly every scene in case something isn’t clear.) The plot thickens as Claudio is wrongly convinced his beloved has been sleeping around. Is the couple destined to be torn apart by the treachery of others? Claudio believes fair Hero has betrayed him.
So here it is: one couple falls in love at first sight but has to deal with an issue of malicious, destructive gossip, while the other slowly comes to recognize their deep feelings for one another while engaging in a lot of hard-headed bickering.
Like lovers in some crazy 1930s Hollywood screwball comedy, Benedick and Beatrice spend much of their time determined to convince themselves they’re not in love. But when they’re thrown together to defend their slandered friend’s honor, their true feelings surface. For much of the play there’s an on-going, rapid-fire battle of wits. Jeep gives an endearing sparkle to spunky Beatrice, which is well matched by Theis as wannabe playboy Benedick.
Because this comedy has such a wide range of emotions and tones, it’s initially slightly difficult to grasp. But the universal themes of love, hate, jealousy, and friendship carry through and seem to make the characters deeper and more interesting than the usual Shakespearean comic folk.
There are lots of slapstick sight gags, as when Benedick eavesdrops, pretending to be a tree with an armful of branches, and falls on his face.
There are several charming interludes, including an early-on masked ball choreographed is by Zoe Palko and Brianne Wilson.
Buffoonish Dogberry (Brian Simmons), a comic watchman, and his inept deputies, somehow manage to save the day. Lucy Carr adds some swell bawdy bits. Dan Marco plays Antonio.
The period is presumably when the play was written, circa 1598. But the costumes, though they work fine, are not exactly “Shakespearean.” They’re more early 19th century, with the girls in “empire” Jane Austen style dresses and the guys wearing a lot of puffy shirts and vests with khaki pants.
As I arrived at Austin Gardens Saturday night the skies looked ominous. But miraculously, during the first couple of scenes, the masses of dark, threatening clouds completely blew over. Voila! It was another perfectly lovely summer evening in beautiful downtown Oak Park.
The set this season faces west, which seems a wise choice. The view is just as nice and our ears are turned away from occasionally noisy Forest Avenue.
The sound system seems especially sharp and crisp this year, perhaps reflecting the new electrical system installed by the park district in Austin Gardens. Kyle Irwin’s sound design includes lots of wonderful guitar music in the interludes.
Sometimes lately I worry that many of us now too easily and too frequently prefer staying sealed up in high-definition, air-conditioned seclusion so that experiences like live outdoor theater may soon pass into the realm of bygone nostalgia-like ice wagons, vaudeville shows, and dime store lunch counters.
I urge you to venture forth and come to Austin Gardens, one of the most majestic settings in our community, located in west central Oak Park just north of Lake Street on Forest Avenue. Don’t miss your chance to sit on a blanket, enjoying the pre-show music as you dine under the stars. Summer sails by all too quickly swiftly. We all know that sooner than we think, Walgreens will start putting out their Halloween stuff.
I’m excited to report that Festival Theatre has revealed their 2009 season, which will include George Bernard Shaw’s comedy Arms and the Man at Pleasant Home (in April), and both Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July and Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in Austin Gardens. (The Bard takes a break next summer.)