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In the concluding moments of Utah Shakespeare Festival's buoyant, fun-filled production of "Much Ado About Nothing," a swing drops from the rafters of the theater. Beatrice climbs on, Benedick pushes her and she sails out over the first few rows of the audience.
The joy and sense of freedom shared by the two lovers convey the free-spirited feeling of this production. Director David Ivers played Benedick in USF's last production in 2010, and his inventive comic sensibility and impeccable timing are apparent everywhere here.
Ben Livingston's clever, confident Benedick and Kim Martin-Cotten's sharp-tongued, fiercely independent Beatrice are an older couple than we usually see in "Much Ado," which makes their relationship when they finally admit they want to have one seem more deeply rooted. Their banter clearly masks a deep desire for connection. They sit center stage and share some warm and witty moments in Act II, and when they try to read each other's poems, they have to put on their glasses.
They also contrast sharply with the innocence and youthful impetuosity of Luigi Sottile and Leslie Lank as Claudio and Hero. The portrayals of these characters are often bland because they haven't much depth, but Sottile and Lank flesh them out and give them real individuality.
This production's cast is uniformly strong. Larry Bull's jovial, mischief-loving Don Pedro, Peter Lohnes' earnest, patriarchal Leonato, J. Todd Adams' egocentric, treacherous Don John, John Plumpis' overzealous but well-meaning Dogberry, and Kelly Rogers' sassy Margaret are just a few of the finely crafted performances. And watch for a familiar festival face who shamelessly pads his part as Dogberry's sidekick, Verges.
Ivers points out in his director's notes that the title of the play originally meant "Much Ado About Noting." Most of the action comes from characters overhearing things and reacting either positively or negatively, and the information itself may be false or true. Shakespeare is all about balance, and he offsets the much darker subplot about Hero's betrayal against their friends tricking Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love, all accomplished by eavesdropping. Dogberry and his ragtag cohorts get pulled in when they hear Borachio bragging and reveal Don John's villainy. As Borachio says, "What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light." Sometimes the difference between comedy and tragedy is just that thin in Shakespeare.
The "gulling" scenes where Beatrice and Benedick are fooled into acknowledging their love are the comic heart of the production. Set designer Scott Davis has created a giant tree that both of them climb so they can hear what's being said, and Bull, Lohnes and Sottile have so much fun baiting Benedick that it's infectious.
Davis' set also features lots of citrus and olive trees ideal for hiding behind, and their fruit makes ingenious ammunition. Donna Ruzika's lighting is golden and sunny, and Bill Black's white, cream, beige and brown costumes with their pastel bibs and aprons for the women add Mediterranean flavor. The sound design features lots of Italian songs composed by Gregg Coffin.
"Much Ado About Nothing" is one of Shakespeare's wittiest, most warmhearted comedies, and this well-rounded cast and Ivers' flamboyant flair for comedy turn it into an entertaining romp without diminishing its darker edges, making it a complete theatrical experience.
A strong cast and savvy direction explore all the comic possibilities in the Utah Shakespeare Festival's "Much Ado About Nothing."
When • Reviewed July 8; plays in rotating repertory with two other productions Mondays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Sept. 8
Where • Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, 299 W. Center St., Cedar City
Tickets • $20 to $73 with discounts for groups, students, and seniors; 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or http://www.bard.org
Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission)