While neither Jennifer Aniston, nor Matthew McConaughey, is anywhere to be found, with Much Ado About Nothing, Georgia Shakespeare has a bona fide romantic comedy summer blockbuster on its hands. One of the rare Shakespearean plays written predominantly in prose, Much Ado About Nothing tells a story of loyalty to one’s heart and the person who has captured it.
Like with many of Shakespeare’s plays, it is hard not to notice the familiar plot points from some of his other works, including the false accusations of infidelity from Othello, a faked death masterminded by a friar from Romeo and Juliet, and the witty, yet reluctant lovers of Taming of the Shrew. However, on the strength of Producing Artistic Director Richard Garner’s buoyant, if not at times break-neck, direction, the performances of Atlanta theatre stalwarts Courtney Patterson and Joe Knezevich, in addition to an exceedingly delightful ensemble, the show feels as fresh as any film you are likely to fork over $11 for this summer.
Much Ado About Nothing, performed in repertory with Illyria: A Twelfth Night Musical and The Importance of Being Earnest (which opens July 5), is led by Georgia Shakespeare Associate Artists Knezevich (Benedick) and Patterson (Beatrice) as a confirmed bachelor and a willing maid who doth protest their love too much. The pair fights their feelings for each other with flirtatious insults, all the while taking just slightly more pleasure in landing their sharpest barbs than in the back-and-forth with their able-witted adversaries. Knezevich and Patterson are well-matched foils, who command the stage at all times, whether looking to one-up each other, or to revenge a slanderous accusation. At times Knezevich’s excessive rate of speech can cause you to miss some of Shakespeare’s wordier zingers, but on the whole, he embodies each nuance of the conflicted Benedick while wringing every drop of comedy (if not more) out of the role, and providing the production with its playful and romantic center.
Another pair of lovers, Hero, portrayed with maidenly charm by Ann Marie Gideon, and Eugene H. Russell IV’s Claudio, are quickly united by Mark Cabus’ puckish prince, Don Pedro, only to have their pending nuptials derailed by Don Pedro’s admittedly villainous brother, Don John (Maxim Gukhman). Cabus provides a silly and sweet performance, all the while winking at some of the more outlandish plot turns. Ironically, Russell doesn’t provide his truest performance until deceiving Benedick alongside Don Pedro and Allen O’Reilly’s Leonato.
With the help of his two, generally drunken, followers, played by Travis Smith and Caleb Clark, Don John convinces Claudio that his beloved Hero has been unfaithful, and despite some disastrous repercussions, their treachery is discovered by the less than Holmesian police work of the hilarious malaprop, Dogberry (Associate Artist Chris Kayser), and his bumblingly effective night watchmen, played by Megan McFarland, Terrance Jackson, Seth Langer, and Claire Rigsby. The ensemble also features Marianne Fraulo (Antonia), Stephen Shore (Balthasar), Elizabeth Beesley (Margaret), and Anna Kimmell (Ursulsa).
Despite a brilliantly subtle lighting design by Mike Post, a Tuscan sun-soaked set, complete with a working water feature (used to a nearly perilous comedic effect), by Kat Conley, and progressively shed costumes by Sydney Roberts, the heat, either sun or sex generated, never seems to match the volcanic levels that Garner intended. However, the show provides plenty of sparks and laughs that make it a perfect way to spend a romantic date night this summer.
Georgia Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing runs through August 4 at the Conant Performing Arts Center on the campus of Oglethorpe University, and tickets range from $13 to $45. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the theater’s website or call the Georgia Shakespeare Box Office at 404-504-1473.
– Matt Tamanini