Celebrating the return of actors to the stage: Freewill’s Much Ado About Nothing, a Fringe review

Ian Leung, Christina Nguyen, Sarah Feutl in Much Ado About Nothing, Freewill Shakespeare Festival. Photo by Ian Jackson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Much Ado About Nothing (Freewill Shakespeare Festival on the Vanta Outdoor Stage)

For the first time in a 32-summer history, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival has arrived at the Fringe — and it’s in runners, carrying a couple of fake potted plants, a whole bunch of hats, and a trunk full of jackets.

It’s a 75-minute adaptation (by Freewill artistic director Dave Horak) of Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s witty and mirthful mid-period comedy with its dark difficult knot at the centre. I was kindly allowed to attend the outdoor preview in Louise McKinney Park; you’ll find it on the Fringe’s outdoor stage, where it should flourish.

It’s comedy as farce, and farce as a showcase primarily for actor dexterity. The shortness of time and the smallness of cast propel five agile, extremely busy actors, changing characters and genders through 20 roles, round and round designer Megan Koshka’s cheery pink screen at such a frenetic pace that in one climactic scene an actor will play two characters talking to each other, simultaneously.

In this giddy feat Troy O’Donnell plays both an aggrieved father sending a villain’s henchman to the slammer AND the henchman.There is no time for a change in hats. There must be something in the water in Messina, and maybe it’s Red Bull. Pay attention, you there at the back, or you’ll miss the plot.

The setting Horak has chosen for his Much Ado (one of the two Freewill small, fast Shakespeares touring to backyards, patios and parks this summer) is Right Now. Which is why the actors are overjoyed to find themselves together again onstage at the outset, after a long pent-up pandemic hiatus. Some are wearing masks, others not. All are wearing summer clothes, not costumes. Exuberant greetings all round, as they choose a play to perform, and divvy up the parts.

It’s a hoary old play-framing device, to be sure. But it has a special resonance in this second pandemic summer when months and months of Zoom-laden isolation are finally giving way. It’s all about the joy of seeing actors return to what they do, become other people, a lot of other people. “Let’s do it!” is the opening line. And they’re off.

Of the two courtships in the play, it’s the verbal jousting between the reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick — the “merry war” as Leonato calls the thrust and parry of their barrage of wit — that gives the play its comic fizz. They both have the gift of the gab but in different ways. Sarah Feutl is a winsome, feisty, bright Beatrice, and there’s a rumpled, breezy charm about Yassine El Fassi El Fihri as Benedick, who looks for reinforcement from the audience allies in the audience whenever he’s outfaced. And every once in a while, the perpetual motion machine of the production stops whirling to give these two a precious moment to assess each other — before they have to become other characters.

The double-/ triple-casting has a kind of nutty impossibility about it that’s part of the fun; there are many near-misses with hats and jackets, entrances and exits. And it pretty much gives the production a pass on the perpetual challenge of Much Ado, the ugliness of the deception that’s played on the other pair of lovers, Claudio and Hero, and especially the cruelty of Claudio’s denunciation of his beloved.

Feutl is also Claudio, and smartly she plays him the way Beatrice would, as a comic character, a swaggering ninny posing with his sunglasses. So when he behaves badly, it doesn’t detain the production very long. Christina Nguyen is not only the abused Hero, but is the lead buffoon in the comically inept local constabulary team of Dogberry and Verges.

The generations, amusingly, are distinguished by their verbal styles. Ian Leung and O’Donnell as the two dads, Don Pedro and Leonato (among their multiple assignments), have a more formal “Shakespearean” way with the text.

What you don’t get, naturally, is the full colour palette of Much Ado, a big rich handful of a comedy. What you do get is a celebration of the return of the craft of acting (and over-acting), in all its playfulness. “I cannot woo in festival terms,” laments Benedick, rueful about his lack of prowess with rhyme. That’s where you’re wrong Benny. You’re in a show that’s all about wooing in festival terms.

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