Friday, June 23, 2023

"Much Ado About Nothing" by Classical Actors Ensemble at Tony Schmidt Regional Park

It's not summer in Minnesota without Classical Actors Ensemble (CAE) doing Shakespeare in a park near you! This year they're bringing us the rom-com Much Ado About Nothing, and as per usual they do it in a playful and accessible style. Performances are free and no reservations required (but recommended); you just show up with your picnic blanket, camp chair, and snacks to enjoy the show. And when you happen to get a lovely evening like I did, when the heat of the day has subsided and there's plenty of shade and even a gentle breeze, it truly is the most pleasant way to experience Shakespeare. Performances continue in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding suburbs through July 16, so find one near you and go enjoy Shakespeare the way it was intended - fun, playful, outdoors, and with the whole community in attendance.

If you, like me, have a hard time remembering which Shakespearean comedy is which, let me remind you. The plot of Much Ado centers around two romantic couples, the sweet and innocent young lovers Hero and Claudio, and the constantly bickering frenemies Beatrice and Benedick, who each swear they'll never marry. Which means that by the end of the play, of course they will. Their friends and relations plot to make each think the other loves them, which makes them realize they, too, love the other. Unfortunately for poor Hero and Claudio, forces conspire against them, based on a vendetta of the bastard brother of the prince. There are some dramatic moments, but in the end the truth comes out and our couples are reunited for a happy ending.*

the cast of Much Ado (photo courtesy of CAE)
This play contains some of the best biting sarcastic rom-com banter in the I-hate-you-so-much-I-must-love-you vein. Everyone in this large and talented cast does a wonderful job of speaking the words naturally in a way that makes the story easy to follow and connect to (not to mention being heard above the sounds of planes, trains, and animals). The actors are in and out of the audience, entering from all sides, making it an immersive and intimate experience. There's no one better at this than Tom Conry as Benedick, who makes his way through the audience, "hides" among them making little asides, asking for help in writing his poetry, and just generally engaging directly with the audience. He's well matched in Charlotte McDaniel as the strong and feisty Beatrice. The two have a charming prickly chemistry, and it's delightful to watch them go from bickering to awkwardly tentative to fully in love.

here come the soldiers! (photo courtesy of CAE)
Other highlights in the cast include Alan Tilson as Hero's father and Beatrice's aunt, concerned for both women's happiness; Jin Suh as Don Petro, friend of the couples and orchestrator of the matches; Dietrich Poppen as the aforementioned bastard brother who wreaks havoc with his schemes; Dominic DeLong-Rodgers as the oft drunk soldier who enacts those schemes; M. Smith Fraser stealing scenes with a hand puppet as Dogberry; and Bridget Foy and Nate Turcotte as the sweet young lovers.

CAE's founder and Artistic Director Joseph Papke directs the cast, once again getting strong, playful, present performances from everyone, and trimming the story down to about two hours (no intermission). He also provides much of the musical accompaniment, with a few songs and courtly dances (choregraphed by Eli Sibley) sprinkled throughout, a lovely added element. The cast is dressed in vaguely period costumes - military style uniforms for the men, full skirts for the women (costume design by Lolly Foy and Molly Smith). Kudos to the cast for performing in multiple layers in the summer heat and not looking labored. The play is performed with minimal sets and props, just a simple backdrop of green and yellow with a split curtain, and a few benches well utilized (scenic design by Dietrich Poppen, props design by Marc Christian Berg).

Truly one of the joys of a Minnesota summer is to experience our incredible theater community in the great outdoors, during the short window of pleasant weather. Doing Shakespeare in parks is a long-standing tradition around the globe (beginning in Central Park in the '50s), and I'm not sure anyone in #TCTheater has done it longer (this would be their 10th year if not for the pandemic) or better than Classical Actors Ensemble. Any fan of local theater needs to experience this delightful summer tradition.

*Plot summary borrowed from what I've written about previous productions.