1. Stage

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

The cast of "Much Ado About Nothing" at American Stage. From left, Margee Sapowsky, Stephanie Gularte, Brock D. Vickers, Matt Acquard, Richard B. Watson and Juliana Davis. Artwork by Laura Spencer. (Photo by Joey Clay)
Published Nov. 15, 2017

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.


  1. REO Speedwagon will perform at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on March 1, 2020. Courtesy of Randee St. Nicholas
    REO Speedwagon, Gladys Knight, Kidz Bop, Art Garfunkel and more.
  2. Michael Francis leads a community chorus during one of the Florida Orchestra's Sing Out Tampa Bay sing-alongs. MICHAEL FRANCIS  |  Florida Orchestra
    The music director is entering his fifth year with the orchestra, which has a Beethoven-heavy season opening Sept. 27 in Tampa.
  3. Spymonkey's "Hysteria!" will run at the Straz Center's Jaeb Theater from Sept. 19-Nov. 3. Courtesy of Jane Hobson
    Spymonkey’s ‘Hysteria,’ Billy Cobham and ‘Crossing the Bay’ accompany dance experiences and a banned book cabaret.
  4. Patrons hit the dance floor at Tampa venue Skipper's Smokehouse in 2015. LUIS SANTANA  |  Tampa Bay Times (2015)
    A 12-hour party in the Skipperdome, stargazing and a family-friendly Williams Park festival provide free and cheap entertainment.
  5. A Zombie Bride is one of the characters found in one of Busch Gardens' open-air scare zones at Howl-O-Scream, which opens for its 20th year on Friday.
    Free Museum Day is coming, Howl-O-Scream opens at Busch Gardens, Billy Ray Cyrus plays for the Bucs Beach Bash and Tho Who will be at Amalie Arena.
  6. Jordan Foote (Norm) and Jonelle M. Meyer (Corky) in Jobsite's production of Steve Martin's "Meteor Shower." Courtesy of Pritchard Photography
    Steve Martin’s voice is ingrained in the absurdist comedy.
  7. Trans-Siberian Orchestra, bringing two December shows to Tampa's Amalie Arena, performs in Birmingham, Ala., in 2017. Courtesy of Anna Jones
    Seats at Stomp, Little Big Town and A Nightmare on Franklin Street are also up for grabs.
  8. Jim Jefferies in an episode of Comedy Central's "The Jim Jefferies Show." ALI GOLDSTEIN  |  Comedy Central
    Raunchy moms, YouTubers and flamenco dancers also hit local theaters. Plus, Tampa Rep opens a Pulitzer-winning drama.
  9. From left: Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter, Barry Bostwick as Brad Majors and Susan Sarandon as Janet Weiss in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." 20th Century Fox
    The popular ‘Last Podcast on the Left’ and Barry Bostwick from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ are new to A Nightmare on Franklin Street.
  10. The children just tricked (conned) their father into letting them purchase a dog, much to his displeasure, in the Live Oak Theatre presentation of 'Cheaper By the Dozen,' which opens Sept. 13 at the Brooksville theater. Standing, left to right: Billie (Amber Marino), Martha (Quincee Willis) and Dad (Joe Santerelli). Sitting, left to right: Dan (Jase Ivie), Fredericka (Hailey Radatz), “The dog,” (Ozzie), Jackie (Cam Kennedy) and Lilly (Emily Mosher). Kris Mitten