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Great Lakes Theater reimagines “Much Ado About Nothing”

Great Lakes Theater lives up to its promise to “reimagine the classics” with its current production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” The show is given a stylish overlay of design while maintaining all that the bard put into the show.

Historically, “Much Ado About Nothing” has been an audience favorite. The comedy has romance as its premise. In this case, it is Beatrice and Benedick. From the start, their politically savvy families know that the youngsters are meant for each other. We in the audience know so as well. The only ones ignorant of their future are Beatrice and Benedick. Their first meeting is a spirited trading of insults. “I wish my horse would run as fast as your mouth,” Benedick declares.

There is a villain in the show: Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro, Benedick’s lord. There’s no mystery that he is a scoundrel. Dressed in black, check. Missing an arm, check. Disfigured scarred face, check. He hatches a plot to spoil the romance of another couple, Hero and Claudio, who are part of a parallel plot, and pair to Beatrice and Benedick.

While “Much Ado About Nothing” is an enduring audience favorite, I doubt that Shakespeare would count it among his “top hits.” A frothy comedy, all that is part of Shakespeare’s theatrical era is present. In addition to the dual romantic plot lines, there is opportunity for song and dance, and a group of “rustics” provides some low humor for the masses – ”groundlings” in Shakespeare’s era. The Great Lakes Theater production takes all of this and gives the show a gloss of a different era, while preserving all that the playwright intended.

Let’s start with kudos to director Sharon Ott’s production concept. The 1920s are starting to roar, and so is the design. The backdrop is a series of perforated metal panels, suggestive of Art Deco. Costumes reflect the military of World War I as well as the introduction of flappers and men in tuxes. Music has been cleverly written to evoke the era. It’s a hoot to hear the “hey nonny, nonny” lyrics with a ukulele accompaniment. Dances have Charleston steps, and a masked-ball scene is one of the show’s highlights.

Of course, the best design is a pale second place if the acting is not strong. Some familiar and some new faces give this production an energy and dynamism worthy of the Jazz Age. J. Todd Adams is a forceful and likable Benedick, even when he is spouting some of his most sexist comments. Cassandra Bissell’s Beatrice is up for the challenge, being a “liberated” woman both of Shakespeare’s time and the 1920s. She is suggestive of a red-haired Eve Arden with her wisecracking style. Betsy Mugavero suffers splendidly as Hero when she is accused of being untrue to her intended.

Style and script come together brilliantly halfway through the show when the men first have an extended scene with Benedick, followed by a parallel scene of the women with Beatrice. After that, we meet the “rustics” – in this case, a constable and some new recruits. Dougfred Miller as Dogberry and M.A. Taylor as Verges have the style of performers in a Mack Sennett silent comedy. Add two recruits in Austin Blunk and Steven West, and it’s like “The Little Rascals,” Shakespeare style.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is another theatrical feather in Great Lakes Theater’s plume-filled cap. It runs at the Hanna Theatre through April 14.

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