Sweet and modern, 'Much Ado' a lovely evening

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By Doug Deuchler

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Opening night of Oak Park Festival Theatre's delightful new production, Shakespeare's witty Much Ado About Nothing, was fun and refreshing. Many people enjoyed their picnic fare before the show began. I did not notice bugs or planes overhead at any time during the performance. There was a light, refreshing breeze as sunset gave way to moonlight just before the one intermission. It was a lovely evening.

This, one of Shakespeare's better-known romantic comedies, has been transferred from its original 16th century Sicilian setting, just after a war, to the 20th century, following World War II in the middle 1940s. The end of wartime was an era of strong women and new ways of looking at traditional romance.

Director Melanie Keller establishes a comic world that feels fresh, dynamic and accessible. The acting is very solid.

Triumphant soldiers are returning from battle. Victorious Don Pedro (Peter Siplas), Claudio (Ian Michael Minh), and Benedick (Bryan Wakefield) are greeted at the home of their wealthy older friend Leonato (Patrick Blashill).

Before the performance begins and during the one intermission, Big Band music from the '40s, such as romantic "Sentimental Journey" or the rousing "Sing Sing Sing," is played. It establishes the postwar mood perfectly.

The story involves two sets of lovers. Beatrice (Eunice Woods) and Benedick don't love each other, but then they do. Claudio and Hero (Tina El Gamal), the daughter of the men's host, love each other, but then they don't, but then they do again. 

Claudio and Hero are almost torn apart by the treachery of others. Hero is naïve and kind-hearted. But too-gullible Claudio is deceived by a malicious plot and denounces Hero as unchaste. But the marriage-intolerant pair, Beatrice and Benedick, each initially duped into believing the other is in love with them, are almost kept apart by their own conflicts and treachery.

Beatrice, the niece of Leonato, is a strong-willed, feisty, but charming woman. Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, has sworn off love but enjoys witty banter with her. She has the wit and courage to point out the failings of not just Benedick, but men in general. Benedick, a bit arrogant, perhaps, does show himself to have a good heart. Their relationship begins as one of sparring partners. Both are content with their single lives, or so they think.

Two amusing scenes are when first Benedick and then Beatrice are in hiding, listening to their friends' put forth fake gossip. The plot gets pretty twisted but everything is eventually resolved.

The conflicts spring from the double standards placed on both men and women. Of course, such conflicts and patriarchal privilege persist more than 50 years later.

There is good chemistry between Woods and Wakefield. The dark, dramatic story of Claudio and Hero's ill-fated romance is interrupted by the friction between the reluctant lovers Benedick and Beatrice.

The inept constable Dogberry is Bret Tuomi. Lizzie Bourne is a devoted servant. 

The impressive set, a villa with an upper room, was designed by Nicholas James Schwartz. Festival's steadfast box office manager, as ever, is Mary Liming.

Much Ado About Nothing is sweet and seemingly rather modern. I know there are those who dislike productions which move the play outside of the Elizabethan period. But I found myself thinking of various lines, even whole scenes, in exciting new ways. The 1940s setting is an interesting experiment that pays off. 

See "Much Ado About Nothing" in Austin Gardens, through Aug. 31, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays, 7 p.m., $35; $28, seniors; $15, students; free, children under 12 and dogs. Tickets/more: oakparkfestival.com, 708-300-9396. 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park.

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