Last season, the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training and Selby Botanical Gardens found a successful partnership with an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream along the gardens’ bayfront. Now the two have paired up again with another romantic comedy by the bard, Much Ado About Nothing.
Directed by the Conservatory’s Shakespeare specialist, Jonathan Epstein, the production once again, as with Dream, mixes the original work up a bit by throwing in some contemporary references, music and even dance, along with costumes by Sofia Gonzalez that add flair and color to the proceedings. But the path to a happy ending with Much Ado (often performed and sometimes filmed) is a more problematic one than with Dream.
Most of Act I is light enough, as we meet the sparring anti-marriage Benedick (Dylan Crow) and Beatrice (DeAnna Wright); Benedick’s friend in arms Claudio (Scott Shomaker); Beatrice’s pretty cousin Hero (Katie Sah); and conquering hero Dona Petra (Olivia Osol), transformed here from the original male role of Don Pedro. Director Epstein knows how to keep the comedic action lively and the punning wordplay sharp, especially as Petra and Claudio scheme to bring Beatrice and Benedick together by planting in each’s mind the notion that the other is secretly in love with him or her.
But another scheme is brewing as well, and it’s less innocent. Petra’s malignant brother Don John (Matt Kresch, complete with a villain’s mustache) seeks to do harm by convincing Claudio that his betrothed, Hero, is fooling around. The subsequent slut shaming of the innocent Hero turns Much Ado to a darker note, as both Claudio and Hero’s own father, Leonato (Lawrence James), are all too ready to believe the worst.
Luckily, the clownish Dogberry (Eric Meixelsperger), played here as a gum-chewing, cowboy-booted Southern cop stereotype, and his inept Watch team somehow manage, against all the odds, to discover the conspirators in this slander, and all’s well that ends well (to borrow another Shakespeare title).
Along the way, the Conservatory students are receiving an education in how to deliver dialogue loudly enough to top the noise of nearby traffic, the occasional airplane, and the constant trickling of a fountain that provides virtually the only set piece. (I wondered at its initially annoying presence, but it becomes crucial in later scenes of tomfoolery.) They perform with great gusto and energy, especially Crow, Wright and Osol, but of course the setting (lovely as it is) doesn’t allow for any subtlety or nuance of performance. It’s all got to be pretty much telegraphed.
That said, Epstein comes up with plenty of clever ways to keep the audience engaged, and to make us appreciate how Shakespeare’s work continues to translate for us over the centuries.
Much Ado About Nothing continues through May 5 at Selby Gardens; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.