Much Ado About Nothing

By Robert Lilly

There is a delightfully raucous and surprisingly uproarious production of the Shakespeare classic Much Ado About Nothing currently on stage at Ojai’s beautiful Libbey Bowl. Set at the height of the roaring 20’s, this version of the Bard’s most well-known battle of the sexes boasts compelling performances and effective technical elements, as well as a Broadway-style Charleston dance number, all within picturesque surroundings that seem built to suit. 

The newly renovated bowl inside Libbey Park in the heart of charming downtown Ojai is an exquisite and accommodating venue for a wide variety of outdoor spectacles. Offering a full slate of concerts and events, the large and visually appealing space proves also to be a perfect fit for Shakespeare’s hilarious work Much Ado About Nothing. This production, jointly produced by Thousand Oaks Repertory& G.A.T.E Players with the Ojai Players, is high on concept and even higher on enjoyment and execution. 

Much Ado About Nothing has long been an audience favorite and is considered one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies. It has been adapted for film multiple times, most notably in the 1993 Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson star-studded epic that gained popular acclaim. Much Ado About Nothing is primarily a love story between the quick-witted and self-assured Benedick (Andrew David James) and the hard and fast independent Beatrice (Laura Rearwin). The two swap verbal barbs to the delight of friends and family who eventually conspire to make the unlikely pair fall in love with one another. It is a match far different from the youthful and more vulnerable love between the beautiful Hero (Allison Chase Williams) and the easily swayed Claudio (Austin Miller), both of whom are targeted for sabotage by the wicked Don John (Jonathan Weiser). 

Whilst the lovers love, Don John plots to destroy the peace built by his prominent brother, Don Pedro (Richard Osborn), who has newly returned from war and is now on leave with his men at the estate of Hero’s wealthy father, Leonato (Terry Fishman). Along the way, we meet the disheveled and consternated Dogberry (Richard Winterstein) and a cast of characters, each of whom are caught up in the frivolity of celebration and a firestorm of romance and scheming. Ultimately, both couples overcome the obstacles between them and all is well that ends well. 

The performances are topnotch across the board, particularly in the principle roles. The capable actors are fully supported by an able and well-constructed 1920’s theme. Director Allan Hunt craftily spins this love story with dexterous use of music and dance. Hunt fully capitalizes on the talent he has assembled, including lead actors so comfortable in the language that it hardly seems out of place in the supposed setting of the flapper age. Choreographer Jeff Wallach provides authentic period dance numbers that lend the show added lift and the original music by composer Rick Rhodes fits seamlessly with Shakespeare’s original lyrics. The costumes are as beautiful as have been seen on the local stage in recent memory and the sound and lights fit well the open-air venue. What the set lacks in aesthetic beauty, it makes up for in practicality and versatility, and the judicious cut of the text keeps the show around a brisk 2 hours. Attention to detail is additionally evident in both the preshow musical group that adds melodic, renaissance-inspired tones to the evening as well as in the comic silent movie era chase scene that begins the second act. 

With meaningful characters, nimble handling of the text, and a strong artistic vision, this Much Ado is very much about something and is a must see for all lovers of great entertainment and classic literature. 

Much Ado About Nothing runs until July 22 at the Libbey Bowl in Ojai.

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