Much Ado About Nothing
The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival is a jocular affair. Presented by the Foothill Theatre Company, it will never make you sad, and you can always bring the kids; that is, if they’re old enough to refrain from seat-squirming and sand-kicking. You’re not going to see Tybalt slay Mercutio under Romeo’s arm, nor will you see any of the Bard’s more philosophical works. Then again, who wants to see death and demise or be made to think when imbibing wine, cold cuts and cheese on the beach at Sand Harbor?
Besides, the light-hearted fare can work terrifically, especially when the leading lady is a strong, blunt and feisty Katharine Hepburn-like actress, and when the leading man wraps wit, tactlessness, devotion and stubbornness into such a tight package that you love hating him but also wouldn’t mind marrying him.
Those two actors are Rebecca Dines as Beatrice and Tim Kniffin as Benedick. Beatrice and Benedick are the driving characters in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and their banter is so engrossing, especially in this version of the play, that another hour of it would have been enjoyable.
Beatrice is a woman planning out her future as an old maid and relishing it; she is also cousin to the virginal and obedient Hero (Emily Van Fleet), daughter of Leonato (Hugh Dignon), the mayor of Sausalito, Calif., circa 1899, who welcomes soldiers/survivors of the Philippine Campaign to stay with him. Benedick, a man who says he would sooner have a couple of bull horns attached to his head and be milked than ever be married, is one of the returning soldiers and friend to Claudio (Justin Martindale), a young soldier who quickly becomes infatuated with Hero. Don Pedro (Steven Patterson), captain of the soldiers, promises to woo Hero on Claudio’s behalf, but Don Pedro’s brother, Don John (A.J. Schuermann) quickly convinces Claudio that Don Pedro’s intentions are anything but virtuous. And this is just the beginning of Don John’s treachery.
Among many smart scenes, there are two that stand out as being superbly well-crafted. In the first, Claudio, Don Pedro and Leonato talk falsely about Beatrice’s love for Benedick, while Benedick, within hearing range, hides inconspicuously in a plant and finds himself watered and trimmed. In the second, Hero and a servant talk about Benedick’s love for Beatrice as Beatrice listens in, hiding in red long underwear on a clothesline. The timing in both scenes is exceptional, and the acting first-rate.
The weakest character is Don John. The 1993 Kenneth Branagh movie version of Much Ado features a dull and empty Keanu Reeves in the role, and Schuermann here is not much better—he plays the character grumpily, never infusing any of his lines with villainy absurd or evil. His expression is one of constant annoyance, and his movements are stiff.
The costumes are very Gone with the Wind, and although the play takes place far from the South, there is a southern elegance and demeanor among the cast. Foothill Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing isn’t edgy, it doesn’t do anything new or alternative with the classic play, but there is no doubt that the group, particularly Dines and Kniffin, performed the piece as Shakespeare intended.