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Optimist's Lighthearted 'Much Ado' for Summer 2017

Jul. 11, 2017
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Photo credit: Michelle Owczarski

This summer’s free, outdoor Shakespeare offering from Optimist Theatre is a lighthearted and cathartic counterpart to last summer’s political powerhouse, Julius Caesar. With its current production of Much Ado About Nothing, the classy and public-minded company invites audiences on a deftly executed romp in the realm of lords and ladies dressed like Casablanca-era resort folk. Although, as the curtain speech assured, this piece primarily aims for laughs, director Tom Reed also notes its present relevance for its exploration of “fake news.” We find our lords and ladies utterly taken in by rather puerile emotional manipulation, but—perhaps less like our present reality—everything is neatly sorted out in the end.

Colin Gawronski’s lighting, Christy Seibers’ costumes, Megan B. Henninger’s sound design, Ron Scot Fry’s set and Paul Terrien’s musical composition join forces to create a beachy world for our foolish but generally well-meaning characters. The laid-back environs are not only pleasant to take in as an audience member, but aptly suit the thrust of the story, suggesting that we are often most vulnerable to lies when we think ourselves most able to relax.

Strong characterizations come from all of the principals with many little gems of performance to be found among the supporting cast as well. Todd Denning imbues Benedick with a level of sheer goofiness not often found in this role. Paired with Kelley Faulkner’s Katherine Hepburn-esque spitfire take on Beatrice, the logophilic sparring at the heart of the story is well realized. Where these two supply much of the show’s comedy, Candace Thomas and Di’Monte Henning as the straight romantic leads Hero and Claudio, counter well with gravitas and sincerity.

Moments of pure joy come in the form of a beautiful setting of “Sigh No More” performed by a female trio led by Kat Wodtke on ukulele, and the hilarious physical antics of the night watchmen as they take direction from the incompetent Dogberry (James Pickering making an engaging comic turn). Kudos as well to Emmitt Morgans for his dual roles of Borachio and Friar, which are well differentiated and compelling. Scot Fry likewise brings great humor to the show in his brief moments as Dogberry’s accomplice, Verges, who walks with an entertaining bowlegged gait and uses an ear horn.

Reed’s direction is astute throughout. Particularly clever are the overheard-conversation sequences in which Benedick and Beatrice crawl, scuttle, climb and even do “the worm” all over the stage attempting to avoid detection by their friends, who, fully aware of their presence, loudly discuss how each of the combative lovers pines for the other.

Although opening night at the Marcus Center’s roofed but unwalled Peck Pavilion saw rainstorms and chilly winds, the audience maintained good spirits. With Much Ado, Optimist has deservedly hit home with its loyal Milwaukee audience yet again.

Through July 22 in the Peck Pavilion, on the river side of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. Seating is first come-first serve. For more information, visit optimisttheatre.org.

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