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.