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THEATER REVIEW Much Ado About Nothing
by Karen Topham

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Playwright: William Shakespeare

At: Oak Park Festival Theatre, 167 N. Forest Ave, Oak Park. Tickets: . Price: $15-35. Runs through: Aug. 31

It's Shakespeare versus an army of cicadas at Oak Park Festival's Much Ado About Nothing and, at least for the first half hour or so, the insects clearly have the upper hand.

As the expositional scenes of the play set up the comedy and the conflicts, the audience strains to hear the actors over the cacophony from the trees. Once darkness falls and the bugs go to sleep, though, things clear up and everyone can settle into enjoying an evening with Beatrice and Benedick and the rest of the denizens of Messina in a play both rife with hilarious verbal banter and burdened by seriously outmoded gender politics.

Director Melanie Keller shares my concerns about the play's treatment of its young heroine Hero ( Tina El Gamal ), the victim of an evil trick by Don John ( Bret Tuomi, who also shines as Dogberry, one of the Bard's most iconic clowns ). John convinces the men in Hero's life, including her fiancé Claudio ( Ian Michael Minh ), that she is unfaithful, rendering her unworthy of marriage. One can't blame a 16th Century playwright for adhering to a 16th Century perspective about women, though Claudio's decision to "shame her" in public at their would-be wedding has always struck me as especially harsh. It certainly feels that way here, as Minh goes off on her like a rocket while poor Hero, who doesn't even know what is going on, crumbles in pain and even her father Leonato ( Patrick Blashill ) doesn't know what to think.

At least Keller is careful to empower the women here as much as it is possible to do so. Ursula, Leonato's sister ( Noelle Klyce ) fiercely advocates for her niece. Margaret, Hero's lady in waiting ( Lizzy Bourne ), is given the full breadth of her witty rejoinders. And of course Beatrice herself ( Eunice Woods ) is easily a match for Benedick's ( Bryan Wakefield ) often caustic but always piquant and amusing put-downs.

Although the story of Claudio and Hero takes up considerably more space in the play, it is Benedick and Beatrice that everyone remembers most. Done well, the banter between these two, as well as the jovial game played by the others that gets them to fall in love, makes for a perfect distraction and counter to the other subplot. Wakefield and Woods work well in these roles, more than capable of delivering their characters' biting lines and likable enough that it's easy to want them to get together. In addition, Wakefield's comic mannerisms add physical humor to Benedick's droll tongue, and Keller creates some very funny blocking as each of them tries to keep hidden to listen to people talking about them. Between them and the malaprop-ridden Dogberry, Shakespeare keeps the audience laughing despite the play's darker center.

Oak Park's Much Ado, despite the cicadas and other occasional issues with lighting and sound, is a very enjoyable evening under the August stars. Bring a blanket, a picnic, and maybe a bottle of wine; you'll have a great time.

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