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Free Shakespeare in the Park moves to the Marcus Center's Peck Pavilion to offer a classic comedy.

The humid, balmy Sunday night seemed made-to-order for Optimist Theatre’s staging of Much Ado about Nothing, which opened this weekend at its new home—the Marcus Center’s Peck Pavilion. In this production, the Sicilian city of Messina becomes a Caribbean-ish port, complete with cantina bar and folky house band.

Looking for some contemporary resonance to Shakespeare’s 1598 play, director Tom Reed mentions the 21st-century phenomenon of “fake news,” tying it to the vengeful gossip that drives the comedy’s plot. That might be a stretch, but there is certainly plenty for a 2017 audience to appreciate in this solid reading of one of the Bard’s most nimble comedies.

Todd Denning and Kelley Faulkner.
Photo by Michelle Owczarski.

Two plots drive the play: Don John’s plot to sabotage the marriage of Hero and Claudio, the friend of his military nemesis, Don Pedro; and the “merry war” of words of Beatrice and Benedick, the pair who have sworn allegiance to the single life, only to be tricked into coupling by the end of the play. The spine of the play is really Hero’s story, but the witty exchanges of Beatrice and Benedick have so captivated theatergoers over the centuries that they have risen to star billing.

No argument here. Todd Denning and Kelley Faulkner clash with delicious spark and venom, even as their surroundings suggest the “Hey…whatever” vibe of a Jimmy Buffet song. As with the rest of the cast, the language is clear and well paced, and the necessary microphones (to keep the voices above the passing Harley caravans) distract only for a few minutes before everything settles into a sweet-sounding groove.

If the feuding lovers are the main attraction, none of the principals get short shrift. Former Milwaukee Rep interns De’Monte Henning (Claudio) and Candace Thomas (Hero) show why they are two of the most talented recent additions to the city’s roster of actors. Jonathan Wainwright demonstrates his play-it-cool approach to The Bad Guy as Don John, and old pro James Pickering gives an object lesson in straight-faced silliness and comic timing in his malapropism-laced turn as Dogberry. David Flores, Emmitt Morgans, Michael Stebbins and Kat Wodtke handle their respective roles with meticulous attention to the language as well as a sense of fun.

Reed, and co-director/dramaturg ML Cogar, keep the fun going as the story unfolds, using live musicians (guitar and slide guitar) for transitions and even for a few of the play’s songs. The conceptual framework is a bit of a puzzle. The military background of the story gets short shrift, which makes Don John’s motives a bit unclear. But the celebratory spirit of the play rings through with flying, Caribbean-tinged colors.

Much Ado about Nothing continues at the Peck Pavilion through July 22nd. It’s free!

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