By setting "Much Ado About Nothing" in the Roaring '20s, director Allan Hunt ensures a high romp factor in this summer's comedy from the outdoor Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival. With period theatrics ranging from Charleston-inspired choreography to a Keystone Kops-style chase sequence, the production finds fresh ways to amplify the slapstick elements in Shakespeare's familiar classic.
The conceit's most significant contribution, however, is in the more subtle and sobering historical backdrop suggested by the World War I-era uniforms worn by the victorious Don Pedro and his military entourage. It is no minor skirmish from which the soldiers are returning, but a convulsive conflict whose aftermath elevates the ensuing frivolity into a much-needed antidote for troubled times, not unlike our own.
Reverberations from the Great War ground and deepen some of the play's less frequently explored lines, such as young Claudio's (Sean Harkinson) musings on how differently he viewed the fair Hero (Kristin Osman) when going off to war versus the more appreciative way he sees her now on his return. In both his infatuation and misguided condemnation of Hero, Harkinson brings a depth of feeling often missing in a character too easily dismissed as a callow, lovesick youth--this sharply focused performance is one of the show's high points.
Doug Broyles as Hero's aggrieved father and Marc Silver as the malaprop-slinging constable too "cunning to be understood" supply particularly solid turns that overcome some stiffness in the supporting roles, such as Derek Medina's disappointingly flat Don Pedro.
The acid test of any "Much Ado" production, however, remains its sparring Benedick and Beatrice, whose enmity is transformed into romance through the machinations of their friends. Here, Brett Elliott's dashing Benedick is the picture-perfect embodiment of a cynical confirmed bachelor who finds himself in the throes of all he has previously jeered--and embraces it with cheery abandon.
Envisioning Beatrice (JJ Rod- gers) as a free-spirited flapper is more problematic--it clashes with her incisively acerbic dialogue, more suggestive of Dorothy Parker than Zelda Fitzgerald. The dissonance fades once the plot gets underway, as the chemistry between Rodgers and Elliott fuels Shakespeare's wry observations about the extent to which we deduce our own feelings from the information we glean from others.
Though budget necessities have forced the Kingsmen Festival to begin charging a nominal $5 admission for adults (premium seating is also available), it's still one of the best theater deals around.
"Much Ado About Nothing," Kings- men Park, California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks. Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 4. $5 (under 18 free). (805) 493-3455. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.