You might think a guy who’s several centuries old couldn’t surprise you.
You would be wrong.
Nebraska Shakespeare’s novel approach to “Much Ado About Nothing” proves that the old Bard — aided by director Susan Baer Collins — has lots of tricks left. The show premiered Thursday at Elmwood Park.
The comedy, one of the most produced of William Shakespeare’s plays, lends itself well to a variety of times and places. It has been set in modern days and at the turn of the 20th century, among other treatments.
This version is set in 1955 at a Mediterranean villa, an inspired choice that allows all kinds of fun costumes, props, music and even dancing. Collins had a great vision and created it with style and charm.
Its plot is classic Shakespeare, dealing with a crooked path to true love. Soldiers Benedick and Claudio return from war to Messina, Italy, for a house party at the villa of the governor, Leonato. Claudio and Leonato’s daughter Hero immediately fall for each other, while Benedick and Leonato’s niece Beatrice battle their way to affection.
Misunderstandings over chastity and fidelity — engineered by mischief-maker Don John — interrupt the wedding of Claudio and Hero. The Watch, a goofy band of law enforcers led by Dogberry, gets involved and ramps up the comedy.
The script is funny and full of wordplay, though it has a misogynistic side that’s often prevalent in Shakespeare’s writing. For me, it’s pretty easy to dismiss that when I consider the era (late 1500s) in which it was written.
A critic in the 1950s probably would have called this performance a romp. The actors breeze through the material having a great time. Portraying Benedick and Beatrice, Eric Parks and Sarah Carlson-Brown both get the chance to showcase their considerable verbal and physical comedy talents — each is required to hide in plain sight as others set them up to fall in love. They have fun wedging themselves into unlikely corners throughout the set.
Konrad Case and Bianca Phipps (Claudio and Hero) play the more sentimental lovers with a sweet charm. Other standouts include Kevin Barratt as Leonato, Vincent Carlson-Brown (who had fun engaging the audience with nonverbal asides) as Don John and Russell Daniels as Dogberry (watch for his pretentious, mincing walk).
As I observed Dogberry and his minions, it occurred to me that modern comedians from Benny Hill to Monty Python to Jerry Lewis owe something to the Bard, who gave us some of literature’s best buffoons.
I can’t say enough about the behind-the-scenes people who were crucial to this show. Lindsay Pape’s costumes — capris, ’50s-style full skirts and swimsuits, tailored men’s suits, all in dazzling colors — were wonderful.
Several props (hula hoops and beach balls, to name two), coordinated by Carrie Velez, illustrated the care and thought Collins and her crew put into the show’s time and place.
Molly Welsh’s music featured lots of mid-’50s Latin beats, and a couple of onstage songs on mandolin, played by the character Balthasar (Mark Mazzarella). It was perfect for the action and the setting.
Those props and music (especially a highly appropriate song performed by Moira Mangiameli as Leonato’s sister Antonia) resulted in one of the best and most innovative finales I’ve seen in a long time.
It appeared that lots of people looked at the clouds before the performance and decided to stay home, because the crowd was more sparse than usual. That’s too bad, because this show will make you forget about gray skies. It provides its own sunshine — and a breath of fresh air.