When was the last time that a Shakespeare play in Montgomery was so clearly spoken, so laugh-out-loud funny, and so incredibly infectious from the enthusiasm of the actors on stage, as last week's opening of Twelfth Night?
Well, director Greta Lambert scores again with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival Intern Company's edited-for-time rendition of Much Ado About Nothing, that tours to schools and has a limited run at home. Ms. Lambert's Interns played supporting roles in her Twelfth Night, but in Much Ado... the eight of them do it on their own, doubling roles, and captivating the audience for the full 90-minutes runnung time.
There was a party atmosphere in the Shakespeare Garden on a comfortably cool Wednesday night: food and drink were available, audience members brought folding chairs and blankets to sit in the amphitheater, citronella candles lent a picnic quality to the evening, and the astonishing "Gypsy Cornbread" jazz band set the tone for what was to come; the large audience punctuated the performance with loud appreciative laughs, resounding applause at several moments in the action, and a cheering spontaneous standing ovation at the end.
Much Ado About Nothing [1598/99] is one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies, in large part for two memorably witty characters, Benedick [Woodrow Proctor] and Beatrice [Katie Fanning], who spar in a "merry war" of wit throughout the play, each criticizing the other's faults and denying a romantic attraction that everyone else sees plainly. Mr. Proctor and Ms. Fanning handle the repartee with articulate confidence, scoring points against one another much to the delight of other characters and the audience. By no means alone in their facility with language, crisp physical antics, adroit posturing and facial expressiveness, Mr. Proctor and Ms. Fanning set a high bar that their six acting companions reach with equal aplomb.
Leonato [Collin Purcell], the governor of Messina welcomes Don Pedro [Ithamar Francois], the Prince of Aragon and his retinue of soldiers back from the wars, inviting them to stay in Messina for a month. Along with him are his bastard brother Don John [Josh Cahn is significantly oily in his depiction of the villain], the aforementioned Benedick, and the youthful Claudio [Colin Wulff], who is smitten with Leonato's daughter Hero [Lara Treacy].
Mr. Wulff and Ms. Treacy depict an innocent romance in complete contrast to Benedick and Beatrice; both couples are destined to be together, though there will be plenty of obstacles and deceptions in their way. -- Don John plots to prevent the marriage of Claudio and Hero, and is only caught out by the clownish constable Dogberry [Brian Ott is an outrageously comical buffoon] and his partner Verges [Ms. Fanning].
As Benedick rails against marriage, claiming he will be a "professed bachelor" until the perfect woman comes along, one who is "rich, wise, virtuous, fair, mild, noble, of good discourse, an excellent musician, and hair of what color it please God," and Beatrice will have none of him, the others plot to get them together; the plan is to have Benedick and Beatrice individually overhear conversations that say that each one has confessed love for the other, thus planting seeds for confrontations to wrest admission of love from each.
Don John's devious suggestion that Hero is unfaithful gets Claudio to denounce her at the altar, and it is announced that Hero died as a result; another clever ruse resolves this catastrophe, and all ends happily with singing, dancing, and forthcoming marriages...yes, even between Benedick and Beatrice, who persist in fighting against admitting their love until the end, and receiving generous applause at their capitulation.
Though there are some blatant misogynistic attitudes about women in the script, and characters are too willing to believe the worst in others on flimsy evidence [still too much with us, I fear], the sheer good will of this remarkable ensemble, their effervescent performances, and the air of forgiveness that reclaims the villain, mark this Much Ado About Nothing as a highlight of this season's offerings at ASF.