This “Nothing” is Really Something

“Shakespeare in the Park” Robust and Rousing

By SHANE RIGGS13428022_10209510189341913_5137608954369431441_n
Managing Editor, Allegany Magazine

It’s a novel but tricky idea. Produce a new interpretation of a William Shakespeare comedy for the general public. Perform it for free, in a limited outdoor stage setting. And oh yes, throw convention out the window and set the whole thing not in the period of when it was written but in the roaring 20s.
Doth anyone dare to toil with the beloved works of the Bard and attempt such a brave reimagining? The results – if done improperly – could – pray thee- be dastardly.
However, keep in mind this idea is one from Front and Centre Stage Productions. This is the same Cumberland based theatre group that last year set the Gospel of Matthew in a circus. And in April, brought to us our beloved Peanuts characters all grown up and talking about sex, drugs and suicide.
With the production of Much Ado About Nothing – playing tonight and tomorrow night at Spruce Forest Artisan Village and next weekend (June 24 – 26) at Constitution Park, Front and Centre is clearly becoming the “go to” theatre group for avant garde productions.
Much Ado About Nothing opened to a lively and somewhat culturally astute crowd Friday night on an outdoor stage on the campus of Spruce Forest – that’s just next to Penn Alps. This was truly a “Shakespeare in the Park” experience. The audience brought their own blankets and chairs.
While the trickling of the Casselman River and the chirping of birds in the trees were a welcomed sound effect , the only negative about this location is the proximity of the production to traffic on I-68 and Route 40. A heavy truck bearing down on its brakes could block out the sound for an entire scene. That should not be a problem when the show plays at Constitution Park next week nor should it be a deterrent to see the show during its run outside Grantsville.
Under the skillful direction of Jennifer Clark (who also designed the clothes for the show), the performances sparkle – sometimes with actual gold, sequins and fringe. Imagine if F. Scott Fitzgerald had lifted from Shakespeare. Here we have “Billy Shakes presents Much Ado About Gatsby.”
And remember, it was Shakespeare who brought the world many of the quotable lines that are still used uncredited to this day. And some of them are delivered with precision skills in this production. Lines like “He wears his faith as the fashion of his hat” or “I am loved by all the ladies, you excepted.” “It better fits by blood to be disdained by all than fashion a carriage and be loved.” “I was born to speak of mirth, not matter.” And my favorite of this play “I would rather hear a dog bark at a crow than hear a man tell me he loves me.”
The mere fact that a play has lasted for centuries and can still be interpreted by a community theatre with rich aplomb and even time travel to the time of American opulence says something not just for the talent and stamina of the story but of the talent and stamina of the cast in this show. “Shakespeare ain’t easy acting.”
Performances by Kimberli Rowley as the ice princess Beatrice and William Clark as the sharp-tongued Benedick are in this setting as matched as Hepburn and Tracy, or Hepburn and Grant, or Hepburn and Stewart. Rowley and Clark’s coupling is as true a pairing as seen in any classic romantic screwball comedy.
Rowley’s Beatrice swears off marriage stating she will wed when “men are made of some metal other than earth,” and Clark’s Benedick swears off Beatrice, alluding to her bad breath on more than one occasion.
Gregory Stangel as the smarmy Don John gives his villain the mustache twirl “soap opera” bad guy turn it needs with a little bit of Kevin Spacey from House of Cards thrown in just for the heck of it. Habtamu Anderson’s portrayal of Count Claudio is charismatic and charming. Linda Julien and Bryan Murtha as town constables on patrol are comedic geniuses. With a nod to the Keystone Cop silent pictures, Murtha and Julien can act more with facial expressions than with words. Upon arresting a culprit for a rumor which defiled a young maiden’s virtue, Murtha’s character makes it known – many times, many many times – that he wants it a matter of public record that the suspect has accused him of being an ass. After every point he pontificates, he makes this clear “and sixthly and lastly, let it be known that I also was accused of being an ass!” With every use of the reference, the audience at Friday’s show howled with laughter all the more.
And as a side note, word of warning for lads and lasses for the scene in which the constables make their entrance. The fourth wall is not just broken it is shattered in a very inclusive way. I speaketh of personal experience so I pray thee strength for those plucked from attendance and asked to embody the personage of a character for which I too was dutifully selected.
Other performance highlights include that of Tim Day, Sidney Beeman, Emily Hayworth, Danise Whitlock, Michael Null, Austin James, and Savannah Humbertson – her character was originally written to be played by a man and every time she is referred to as a man, her reaction is priceless!
Fans of Shakespeare – and yes, there are fans of Shakespeare – will appreciate the new breath of life in this interpretation which is delivered as light and breezy and as lovely as the outdoor air that surrounds it. Those who have had limited exposure to Shakespeare or have abstained from the works entirely since High School English will absorb this story like a dehydrated sponge left abandoned to turn to dust on a beach for which trespassers are not welcome. Hey, how’s that for a review worthy of ol’ Bill himself? Methinks these Front and Centre thespians from the territory of Allegany do a rightly, robust and rousing revision of Much Ado About Nothing. In fact, I dare say, this Nothing is quite something, my handsome patrons of the arts. Quite something this Nothing indeed.

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