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Much Ado About Nothing -06/29/1998

By William Shakespeare. Cast: Rebecca MacLean, Philip Earl Johnson, Roderick Peeples, Timothy Kane, Deb Heinig, Christopher Peterson, Patrick O'Gara, Steve Young, Jay Whittaker, Brad Johnson, Annmarie Benedict, Carrie Lee Patterson, Christopher Prentice, Peter Daddabbo, Jamie Axtell, John Fischer, Andres Munar, Ravi Gahunia, Alex Kitay, Christopher Johnson, Mark Larson, Erin Schneider, Joshua Coomer, Nathan Adams Stark, Anna Adams Stark, Dan Wolfe, Sally Hoffmann, Glynka L. Fritz, Mary Catherine Burke, Ryan Swikle. Director: Robert E. Leonard. Costume Designer: Tona Schenck. Lighting Designer: J. William Runkle. Scenic Designer: Dan Robinson. Sound Designer: Woodrow Hood. Orginal Music by Sally Hoffmann.

Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

In repertory through August 8. Ewing Manor, Bloomington, and Westhoff Theatre, Normal. Box office: (309) 438-2535.


Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" is perfect for fans of romantic comedy.

Yes, there's a nasty betrayal at the center of it, with young love momentarily sidetracked, but the focus is on what it arguably the best-written pair of lovers ever -- the famous Beatrice and Benedict.

They're clever quipsters, reluctant lovers, too smart for their own good..and we know the first moment we see them that they are perfect for each other. Who else can keep up with them? As Leonato, the wise elder in the play, tells us, "if they were but a week married, they would talk themselves mad."

As directed by Robert E. Leonard for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington-Normal, "Much Ado About Nothing" is as witty as it should be, as captivating as it can be, and much funnier than you might expect.

In fact, this is a very merry "Much Ado." Even the villainous Don John (Jay Whittaker) is played for laughs.

Leonard has chosen to set the play in a Mexican border town in 1917, giving the play a fresh look, an impudent tone, and a lot of heat. The night I saw the play it was about 95 degrees, so extra heat was hardly necessary. But it was nice to know that at least it fit the mood of the performance. And remember -- the actors are wearing more than you, moving around more than you, and they're under hot lights. So if you're melting, they're positively frying. I give them extra credit for maintaining the energy and frisky spirit of the play, refusing to droop even under these torrid conditions.

Overall, Leonard's staging is excellent, with nicely framed scenes and moments. He has also contributed several amusing bits, notably when Beatrice and Benedict "accidentally" eavesdrop on conversations concerning themselves.

As played by Rebecca MacLean and Philip Earl Johnson, lovers Beatrice and Benedict are simply wonderful to watch. These superb actors infuse their characters with passion and heart as well as witty repartee.

MacLean does a beautiful job with Beatrice's saucy put-downs, as well as letting us see a hint of the emotion and vulnerability underneath. She is so charming that it comes as no surprise "a star danced" when this Beatrice was born.

Johnson is also marvelous, wrenching humor with a new take on almost every line, and then unleashing some dashing romantic moves as well. MacLean and Johnson may be irresistible, but Roderick Peeples still almost manages to steal the show out from under them whenever he clomps on stage. After a highly charged dramatic performance in "The Falcon's Pitch," it's even more impressive to see Peeples succeed with his hilarious, Slim-Pickens-flavored Dogberry, the hapless constable in the middle (or muddle) of things.

This is the first time I've ever found Dogberry funny, and it's due to Peeples' enthusiastic portrayal and presumably director Leonard's take on the material. Kudos to whoever thought of this pea-pickin', flea-bitten Dogberry -- it works like a charm.

Dan Sullivan's festive set and decorations showcase the action nicely, and Sally Hoffman's music contributions add to the atmosphere.

This is a terrific "Much Ado," not to be missed. If you go out for Mexican food before-hand, maybe even smash a pinata around, you'll really get in the right mood.

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