Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Much Ado About Nothing
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Hamlet

Melissa Maxwell, Will Sturdivant, Emily Fury Daly,
and Diana Coates

Photo by Dan Norman
I have always greatly enjoyed a good production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, and this year's mounting of the comedy by the Great River Shakespeare Festival is no exception. Director Gaby Rodriguez has pared down the play, omitting several characters and scenes so that it whips past us in two hours running time, including the intermission. Some of the streamlining means shortening character arcs and taking some of the nuance out of the narrative, but do you know what? What remains provides us with jolly entertainment without straining us to stay too long in our seats. Rodriguez, her cast, and the creative team treat this Much Ado as a demonstration of the joy inherent in putting on a show, and that joy wraps its arms around the audience with a playful squeeze.

As a setup for the joyful atmosphere, Rodriguez frames the production in a block party motif. The thrust stage, formed by placing tiered seating on three sides of the actual stage at the Dufresne Performing Arts Center, is festooned with colorful streamers hanging from above. On the ground are webbed beach chairs, a folding table to spread out refreshments, and, inexplicably, a kayak resting on its side. Jumbo balloons spell out "Welcome" above the rear of the stage. The local folks are welcoming soldiers who have been victorious in battle under Don Pedro's command. Little is said about the whys or wherefores of the war, other than the fact that Don Pedro's troops did not lose a single man. Hence, bearing no sorrow and with the fighting done, it is time to party.

Right from the top we meet Constable Dogberry (a sincere but ditzy Tarah Flanagan), who, with her partners Verges and Watch, is there to keep the revelers safe and quell any wrongdoing during the festivities. Those partners are played by two spirited young actors, Marina Narvaez and Izzy Heckman, who are clearly having great fun aping the part of crime-stoppers. Shakespeare's Dogberry appears much later in the play, but in this rendition, her presence, along with her comrades, creates an occasion for interaction with the audience at the very start of the show, and establishes right off the bat that we are in for light and playful entertainment.

The plot, once things get underway in earnest, involves two love stories, one played out with sardonic wit and denial, the other an instant merger of two hearts but thwarted by a sinister interloper. The first is the source of most of the play's humor as Beatrice (Melissa Maxwell)–niece of Leonato (Michael Fitzpatrick), the lord of the manor and host of the celebration–and Benedick (Will Sturdivant), one of the returning soldiers, rekindle a long-simmering animosity. Beatrice and Benedick have had a history of verbal sparring, hurling insults at one another, and undermining any possibility of a civil relationship. There are clues that long ago there had been a possibility of romance, but Benedick, who has sworn never to marry, disappointed Beatrice, giving her cause to freeze her feelings ever since. Not that she has any trouble playing the adversary. A sharp tongue and outspoken opinions come naturally to her, but she takes special delight in aiming those weapons at Benedick, as he does to her.

There must be palpable chemistry between our Beatrice and Benedick for their romance via venom to be believed and Maxwell and Sturdivant have that in spades. The two are paired as a radically different couple, Claudius and Gertrude, in the Festival's other production this season, Hamlet, and this past spring both appeared at the Guthrie in the marathon staging of three of Shakespeare's history plays. Moreover, the two actors have been part of Great River Shakespeare Festival's company for the past five years and their established simpatico serves this production phenomenally well.

The roles of Benedict and Beatrice call for a good deal of comic physicality in scenes where they are trying to stay hidden while listening to other characters' banter aimed at getting the two adversaries to acknowledge their true feelings for one another. Sturdivant's turn is first, and his daring-do while basking in the thought of being loved by this magnificent woman had the audience in stitches. His shenanigans set a high bar for Maxwell to meet, only to have her outdo her sparring partner with even more phenomenally funny physical machinations, driven by the desire to know that she too is loved. By the way, these scenes do put that kayak to use, though its presence is still a mystery.

The other romance blossoms when Claudio (Daniel Ajak), the hero of the battle from which the soldiers are returning and Benedick's boon companion, catches a glimpse of Leonato's daughter Hero (Emily Fury Daly) and is instantly stricken with love, as is she for him. The course of true love is thrown a wrench by Don John (Christopher Gerson), the dark-hearted half-brother of Don Pedro (Alessandro Yokoyama covering admirably for Benjamin Boucvalt). Seeking revenge on his Don Pedro, who has reaped all the glory in the war, and Claudio, for being the battalion's star player, Don John schemes, first to interfere with the courtship between Claudio and Hero, and when that fails, devises a more sinister plot to disrupt the couple's wedding, causing despair and the breaking of faith. Not to worry, of course, for this is one of Shakespeare's comedies, meaning all will end well for the virtuous.

Though Shakespeare gives short shrift to making Hero a fully fleshed character, Daly makes a fine and pleasing Hero, conveying her longing for Claudio and the depth of her despair when Don John's scheme provokes Claudio to betray her. The role of Claudio carries more heft, and Ajak persuasively delivers the soldier's euphoric brush with love, as well as his fury when he believes that he has been betrayed. Unfortunately, the trimming of text in this production removes the opportunity for Ajak's Claudio to demonstrate the depth of his repentance as intended by the playwright, making the play's happy ending feel uneasily pat. While we know a happy ending is coming, the steps toward getting there do matter. Shakespeare did not take short cuts.

Gerson puts a droll comedic spin on the hateful Don John, with a running gag that is surprisingly effective. Diana Coates delivers nicely as Hero's lady in waiting, Margaret, and Don John's inebriate accomplice in villainy, Borachio. Coates also plays Leonato's brother and Beatrice's father. The latter is a small part, here made even smaller so as to erase any purpose in his being there.

The creative team has done fine work all around, with an apt and flexible setting by Leah Ramillano, effective lighting by Avery Reagan, clear sound by Jeff Polunas–including Lizzie Hagstedt's musical compositions–and John Merritt's appealing costumes that seem to be circa 1980s. Most eye-catching are the outfits worn by Beatrice that mark her as a woman with sophistication that outstrips the company she keeps.

I would say this is not a perfect Much Ado About Nothing, for in culling out some of the details and nuances in the narrative, the play looses some of the depth that makes it distinctly a classic by Shakespeare. Some of the reductions, no doubt, dovetail with current economics of all non-profit theatre companies, with smaller casts being one way to reduce costs. We can only applaud theatre companies for finding creative ways to mount high quality–even if not perfect–work in the face of this challenge.

And even so, this production successfully serves the purpose of focusing on two things: the joy to be had in putting on a show–and, above all, joy is in abundance here–and the glorious, artful war of words between Beatrice and Benedick. In both regards, this Much Ado About Nothing attains high marks. It delivers a delightfully breezy time, with a pair of tremendous performances by Melissa Maxwell and Will Sturdivant. If the Great River Shakespeare Festival's current Hamlet is a nourishing main dish, Much Ado About Nothing is a sweet and frothy dessert–and what feast is complete without dessert? Together, the Festival serves up a substantial banquet.

Season 21 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through July 28, 2024, with Much Ado About Nothing in rotation with Hamlet at the DuFresne Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. For the schedule of performances and other events, and for tickets, please call 507-474-7900 visit

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Gaby Rodriguez; Composer: Lizzie Hagstedt; Scenic Design: Leah Ramillano; Costume Design: John Merritt; Lighting Design: Avery Reagan; Sound Design: Jeff Polunas; Props Design: Karl Gfall; Hair and Makeup Design: Byron Batista; Text Coach: Jessica De La Rosa; Intimacy Director: Tonia Sina; Fight Choreographer: Benjamin Boucvalt; Mental Health Coordinator: Amanda Salazar; Costume Design Assistant: Thomas Rowe; Lighting Design Assistant: Kassia Curl; Stage Manager: Abbi Hess; Assistant Stage Manager: Kristen Benner

Cast: Daniel Ajak (Claudio), Benjamin Boucvalt (Don Pedro), Emma Bucknam (understudy), Ruth Civettini (Verges alternate), Diana Coates (Margaret/Antonio/Borachio), Emily Fury Daly (Hero), Marissa Dean (understudy), Michael Fitzpatrick (Leonato/Conrad), Tarah Flanagan (Dogberry), Christopher Gerson (Don John/Balthasar), Izzy Heckman (Watch), Morwyn Johnson (Watch alternate), Melissa Maxwell (Beatrice), Marina Narvaez (Watch), Serena Phillip (understudy), Carl Schack (understudy), William Sturdivant (Benedick), Alessandro Yokoyama (understudy).