Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most beloved comedies, combining accessible language, romantic entanglements, high- and lowbrow humor and a little drama into a sweet Shakespearean confection.
And while Idaho Shakespeare Festival's latest production of the comedy may not be its most dazzling, or even most memorable, it is still a light morsel for summer audiences.
At its heart, Much Ado is a story about love--the search for it, the fear of it, the challenges it brings and its ultimate rewards. Returning home from war, Don Pedro and his band of soldiers, including confidantes Claudio and Benedick, as well as his recently reconciled half-brother (and all-around villain) Don John, arrive in Messina, where they are invited to stay and recuperate by the governor of the town, Leonato.
Claudio (Neil Brookshire) quickly falls for Leonato's daughter, Hero (Karen Thorla), and before the soldiers have been in town one night, the two are set to be married. With a few days to wait before the wedding, the brotherhood decides to while away the time by matching up confirmed bachelor Benedick (J. Todd Adams) and Leonato's niece Beatrice (Cassandra Bissell), a sharp-tongued woman whose rapier wit is matched only by Benedick's. The verbal barbs the two throw at each other are easily the high point of the play.
Of course, there needs to be a little drama, so Don John (Dan Lawrence) throws a wrench in the proceedings by framing Hero as less than virtuous and playing on Claudio's jealousy.
ISF's production is set in post-WWI Italy, on the cusp of the jazz age, when women were discovering new strength and freedom. That atmosphere of empowerment serves the strong female characters well, especially the smart and self-possessed Beatrice. The play translates easily into the era, but the era itself unfortunately doesn't add anything to the play. Heavier use of music and a more raucous atmosphere could have livened the production.
Language is allowed to take the spotlight, and under the direction of Sharon Ott, the cast plays with the dialogue, drawing out both subtle and overt humor.
ISF veteran David Anthony Smith (Don Pedro), Adams and Bissell are all standouts, as they deftly romp through the complex dialog with well-placed physicality. Fans of the play will certainly notice the recasting of Leonato's brother, Antonio, as Leonato's wife, Antonia, played by Lynn Allison. While it might upset purists, the transition works surprisingly well and, in effect, creates another strong female character.
While it's doubtful Much Ado will be the standout production of the ISF season, it is a good primer for the next time you decide to have a verbal battle of the wits.