Friday, October 19, 2018
Stage

American Stage’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is just what the love doctor ordered

ST. PETERSBURG — A centuries-old template for the rom-com as we know it and one of Shakespeare’s most produced comedies, Much Ado About Nothing comes to us at a time when we can really use some love conquering all.

Just what the love doctor ordered, American Stage’s mid 1940s revival of the Bard favorite is a sheer delight. From its candy-colored Florida Keys backdrop to the actors’ seemingly effortless delivery, to the spirited choreography, clever effects and Frank Chavez’s chic and cheery costumes, the theater company bats another one home with its first Shakespeare play in nine years.

Another draw: American Stage producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte makes her St. Pete acting debut and delivers one swell turn. She’s sassy, sensitive and never too overbearing as Beatrice. She owns the stage but knows how to share.

The story of American Stage’s Much Ado begins at the end of World War II with the anticipated visit of celebrated war hero Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Jim Sorensen) to the estate of Leonato, Governor of Messina (admirably played by Don Walker).

Of course, Pedro’s recruits and the gals of Leonato’s manor waste no time hooking up and pair up for a rousing dance number, the knee-slapping, high-kicking type you’d picture from Gene Kelly circa An American in Paris.

Two love stories follow — one involves the hopeful young love of Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Margee Sapowsky), and war hero Claudio (Matt Acquard); the other, a couple that’s a decade or so older. Beatrice (Gulate) and officer Benedick (Brock Vickers) behave like they can’t stand each other. (Says Benedick: "For truly, I love none." Beatrice smacks back: "A dear happiness to women.") The two match wits, sparks fly, but are too stubborn to recognize their chemistry. Instead, friends and family members help their love connection along with some playful troublemaking.

Of course, there has to be conflict, inflicted by the play’s handsome but brooding bad guy, Don John (Michael Raver), who lost a battle against his half-brother, Don Pedro, and has reluctantly joined his company.

The somewhat muddy, undersold motivation of Don John as a pouty party-pooper spreading evil rumors is one of the production’s only weaknesses. On re-reading the script, it’s clear that Don John’s backstory is a little rushed during the first act, something that can be resolved with a directorial fix — no reflection on Raver’s solid performance.

Otherwise, director Benjamin T. Ismail scores big here. The California-based actor and director in residence at American Stage is a longtime collaborator with Gularte. He was a stunner as Bashir in The Invisible Hand under Gularte’s direction earlier this year and switches roles successfully for Much Ado.

Ismail makes Shakespeare’s wordplay shine, which is not always an easy feat with a large cast. He is especially deft at eliciting cartoonish physical comedy that recalls the antics of Looney Tunes shorts and Marx Brothers movies. Ismail also adds punch to the play’s feisty battle of the sexes. He reminds us that though the tension between men and women is set in the patriarchal era of 16th century, the fierceness of Shakespeare’s women was way ahead of its time.

Speaking of actor-director switcheroos and fierce women, Lisa Kay Powers recently directed American Stage’s powerful The Royale and gives a majestic portrayal of matriarch Antonia.

Gularte deserves more recognition for her coming-together theme of "We the People" for this season. The plays she selected offer the intention of healing during a divisive time. She backs up her supportive stance by showcasing local artists’ works in conjunction with the show — this show’s featured artist is intrepid illustrator Laura Spencer. A reception for Spencer will be presented Friday in the theater’s lobby before the show.

Perhaps even more resonant, Much Ado pokes fun at our gullibility to hearsay, which recalls today’s confusing noise of "fake news." The reminder to think before believing and value love over cynicism makes American Stage’s Bard confection all the more memorable.

Comments
Singer Seal to headline February’s Florida Orchestra gala

Singer Seal to headline February’s Florida Orchestra gala

ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Orchestra has landed Seal, a four-time Grammy winner, to headline its fundraising gala at the Mahaffey Theater Feb. 9.The London-born star, who has sold more than 30 million albums on the strength of his versatile, smooth...
Published: 10/18/18
So much to like about ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

So much to like about ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

TAMPA — The latest touring Broadway show in town fails spectacularly. It’s supposed to.The Play That Goes Wrong had a full house at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts laughing almost the entire time, in a way I have never heard bef...
Published: 10/17/18
Last year, the arts got little state money. This year, arts groups are watching.

Last year, the arts got little state money. This year, arts groups are watching.

In March, the state slashed funding for hundreds of Florida’s arts and cultural programs by 90 percent. The dropoff came as a blow to the gut, like downsizing from two loaves of bread to one piece.After three straight years of cuts, arts nonprofit or...
Published: 10/17/18
What’s on stage this week: Aziz Ansari, Florida Orchestra fetes Queen, Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’

What’s on stage this week: Aziz Ansari, Florida Orchestra fetes Queen, Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’

After months of lying low, Aziz Ansari is back in the spotlight. The St. Petersburg Opera, Hat Trick Theatre and Radio Theatre Project open their seasons.
Published: 10/17/18
Realignment at Big Bend intersection promises safer traffic flow after construction headaches

Realignment at Big Bend intersection promises safer traffic flow after construction headaches

GIBSONTON – A new north-south road is coming to relieve traffic along U.S. 301, but making way for it promises some short-term traffic headaches for a South Shore region already stymied by congestion.The new road would run more than four miles...
Published: 10/16/18
Updated: 10/17/18
‘Edgar & Emily’ imagines literary legends sharing verses and souls

‘Edgar & Emily’ imagines literary legends sharing verses and souls

TAMPA — Pale candlelight and a comforter on the king-sized bed sets a ghostly mood for Edgar & Emily, which Jobsite Theater has scheduled to run beyond Halloween. David Jenkins directs Joseph McDonough’s comedy, which premiered six months ago in sout...
Published: 10/15/18
Updated: 10/18/18
Where to find Tampa Bay Halloween parties, pumpkin patches and events

Where to find Tampa Bay Halloween parties, pumpkin patches and events

Experience everything from kid-friendly events to horrifying haunted houses to spooky art projects this weekend in Tampa Bay.
Published: 10/11/18
Ernest Hooper: Tampa Bay Food Fight brings chefs, foodies together for good cause

Ernest Hooper: Tampa Bay Food Fight brings chefs, foodies together for good cause

The participants will fight for bragging rights, and the chance to help aspiring culinary artists.
Published: 10/10/18
What’s on stage this week: 'The Play That Goes Wrong,' Florida Orchestra does Harry Potter

What’s on stage this week: 'The Play That Goes Wrong,' Florida Orchestra does Harry Potter

In one play, everything goes wrong on purpose. Plus, the Florida Orchestra tackles Harry Potter, and Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson meet, defying the odds.
Published: 10/10/18
Zev Buffman retires as Ruth Eckerd Hall president and CEO

Zev Buffman retires as Ruth Eckerd Hall president and CEO

After seven years as the CEO and president of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Zev Buffman has announced his retirement. The veteran theater impresario, who turns 88 next week, made the announcement on Thursday, but said he and his wife had reached t...
Published: 10/04/18
Updated: 10/05/18