Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ is clever and fun

Arts / Article

Lara Mielcarek as Beatrice in Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s “Much Ado about Nothing.” Photo courtesy of Ohio Shakespeare Festival.

“Much Ado about Nothing” is actually about a lot. You’ll find that out when you see the fun-filled and splendid dramatic production by Ohio Shakespeare Festival of what has been called one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies.

With a little research, you can find out that the word “nothing” would have been pronounced as “noting” in the Bard’s day. The word connoted then notions of gossip, rumor, eavesdropping and the like. In this play, the word gets at the idea of using “noting” for trickery or, in political terms, treachery.

The plot twists around two major couples: Beatrice and Benedick on one hand, and Hero and Claudio on the other. Benedick (played with unabashed self-liking and confidence by actor Bernard Bygott) and Beatrice (played with a cutting smartness and charm by Lara Mielcarek) loudly thrash about the stage, vowing never to fall in love and marry. A confirmed bachelor and bachelorette respectively, the two clash with one another so much that those who watch them – particularly Don Pedro (David McNees), his brother Antonio (Jim Flippin), and best friend Claudio (Joe Pine) – decide to trick them into falling in love.

The men stage a scene (while knowing well that Benedick is listening) in which they proclaim how much Beatrice is in love with Benedick. To that end, they con Benedick into writing a love letter. The women around Beatrice do the same thing. Hero, Beatrice’s closest companion, and Margaret, her gentlewoman, arrange in similar eavesdropping fashion to fool Beatrice into believing that Benedick is in thrall to her.

It ultimately works out, of course. We’ve all seen the plot convention where a man and woman spar and seemingly hate one another while we as the audience can see clearly that they are actually in love. We also know that the play or show will resolve with love winning out. Shakespeare just made it happen through wonderful poetic images and cadence, and did it a long time ago.

Scene from Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s “Much Ado about Nothing.” Photo via Ohio.com.

Hero (played with a forthright vulnerability by Tess Burgler) and Claudio (played with a certain unwitting eagerness by Joe Pine) take on darker, more serious, and tenderer aspects of love in this play. Claudio presumably falls in love at first sight with Hero, and says as much, but not without also checking quickly to make sure she comes from money. His mixed motives get challenged when Jason Leupold as Don John (the bastard brother of Don Pedro) and his cronies decide to stage a scene suggesting that Hero cheated on Claudio. They trick Margaret into sounding like Hero behind a curtain so that others can overhear.

Claudio believes it all. He denounces the innocent Hero; she protests and pleads for his commitment. He rejects her pretty much out of hand and thinks no more of her until others undo the lie that almost destroyed Hero’s reputation. Claudio’s consternation and easily undone certainty is the troubling section of this play.

Shakespeare makes everything all right by using a religious figure (Friar Francis, played by Alfred Anderson) and the low characters led by constable Dogberry (played by Geoff Knox) to ferret out the deceptions. The friar remains steadfast that Hero is pure, while the low characters fumble and bumble their way through catching and exposing the lying Don John and his cronies.

Claudio becomes convinced of Hero’s innocence, professes his love, and asks her to marry him. And, he smiles gratefully when he hears that the happy couple will share in the eventual inheritance from Leonato (Hero’s father). Hmm, maybe he didn’t change so much after all.

The cast of Ohio Shakespeare Festival’s production was uniformly quite wonderful in the performance I saw, down to and including the actors with a single line or walk-on part. Each contributed significantly to the sense of fun that kept things from getting too serious and out of hand emotionally in the tale. The audience the night I saw the play responded in kind. Laughter filled the night in the outdoor amphitheater setting of the lagoon area in Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens.

Even the set got some laughs. Director Terry Burgler, who also was the set designer, made great use of a fountain in the middle of the stage. No spoiler here. You have to see the production for the full comedic effect.

This season of Ohio Shakespeare Festival, which includes “Much Ado about Nothing” and will conclude with a production of “Henry V” (a work that will complete a two-year project sponsored in part by the Knight Foundation to perform plays not often produced), is an ambitious and delightful combination of plays to put on. Be sure to see them.

Each of the plays is preceded by a Greenshow done by younger members of the company. The Greenshow is well worth seeing. It’s a delightful half hour (beginning at 7:30 p.m.) that includes song, dance and parody.

“Much Ado about Nothing” is being performed July 16-19 at 8 p.m. in the lagoon area of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron; 1-888-71-TICKETS; www.ohioshakespearefestival.com. Tickets are $33 for reserved seating, $28 for open seating, and $15 for students.