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Theatre Review: Actors’ Theatre Returns With Delightful ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theatre Review: Actors’ Theatre Returns With Delightful ‘Much Ado About Nothing’Drew Eberly with, from left to right, Duncan McKennie, Susan Wismar and Megan Lear in the 2021 Actors' Theatre of Columbus production of Much Ado About Nothing - Photo credit: Jabari Johnson
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The much-missed Actors’ Theatre of Columbus brought the stage in Schiller Park back to life last weekend after a dark year with one of Shakespeare’s most accessible comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Philip J. Hickman and Cat McAlpine. 

The phenomenal set by Brendan Michna and costumes courtesy of Tonya Marie (of Gypsycat Studios) plant this Much Ado About Nothing in a 19th-century garden party. The charming framing sequence features the characters reading from other Shakespeare at first, then starting the famous opening lines from a book passed around. This cannily establishes rules for the small cast – eight people, with significant doubling, character switches usually signaled by the actor putting on or changing a jacket – that quickly turn invisible.

This production serves the audience a tasting menu of different comedic approaches without sacrificing the emotional and psychological truth that’s kept this play so close to so many of our hearts for so long. Megan Lear’s Dogberry and Tom Murdock’s Verges burst with buoyant slapstick; Ollie Worden makes the classic nebbish fresh as a hilarious Claudio.

With such a small cast, there’s no room for a weak link. Beyond the virtuosic appeal of actors dashing from one piece of the set and emerging from another as a different person, watching Murdock slide from his over-the-top bumbling old man into an intriguing, muscular, knives-out take on the villainous Don John, and Lear’s moves between the self-satisfied Dogberry and all the nuance of a Hero finding herself without just falling into the trap of being a catalyst for the action, were two highlights in a show that stunned me again and again. A tribute to the skill of Hickman and McAlpine’s direction and casting and the commitment of everyone in the cast.

The characters who provide emotional ballast for the antics and hijinks do not get short shrift here, even with all the swirling mayhem. Duncan McKennie’s nuanced Leonato is one of the finest performances of the character I’ve ever seen. Blythe Coons is a marvel as both Don Pedro and Antonio, highlighting similarities between those characters I’d missed or glossed over previously. Madison Swyers adroitly moves between a dazzling array of characters but made the most profound impression on me as the Friar; some of my favorite moments of the night came with the sparking banter between her, McKennie, and Drew Eberly’s Benedick.

Of course, nothing works without the central couple of Benedick (Eberly) and Beatrice (Sue Wismar). This Much Ado soars through these two, together and apart – not only is their chemistry strong enough to support the show’s spine when so much else explodes around them, but they also capture a crucial ingredient too often overlooked: they’re always amusing themselves

Drew Eberly as Benedick and Susan Wismar as Beatrice in the 2021 Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production of Much Ado About Nothing – Photo credit: Jabari Johnson

Eberly brings a charming louche-ness to Benedick and his asides to the audience – I particularly enjoyed a song-and-dance “There’s a double meaning in this” – feel natural in a way I’ve rarely gotten. Wismar’s Beatrice captures that sense of always being in control and overjoyed to be out of control for brief, spinning moments; she’s up for being in love, but she won’t sell out her family or her core values to make it happen.

Much Ado About Nothing takes advantage of a brisk pace in its two-hour-and-fifteen-minute (with intermission) run time and uses the set effectively. The small cast – frequently organized in tight groups – never gets swallowed by the immense backdrop. Hickman and McAlpine (with movement/intimacy coordinator Beth Josephsen) use physicality and dynamics to keep the play in motion and find clever touches throughout; I especially enjoyed the ribbon dancing, implying the much larger ball.

While turning up the vibrant colors and broader comedy, Hickman and McAlpine make sure the themes that our internalized narratives can drive us off a cliff and nothing is as strong as the lies we tell ourselves ring out long after we leave the park. Rowan Winterwood’s evocative lighting helps reinforce the fundamental time shifts here and how truths feel different at night and in the morning.

Much Ado About Nothing is a glorious return to this company that gave so many of us our first taste of theater in public and heralds a season I’m looking forward to immensely.

Much Ado About Nothing runs through June 20, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. For more info and reserved seating, visit theactorstheatre.org.

Megan Lear with, from left to right, Duncan McKennie, Susan Wismar and Drew Eberly in the 2021 Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production of Much Ado About Nothing – Photo credit: Jabari Johnson
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