Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Much Ado about Nothing
Great River Shakespeare Festival

Also see Arty's reviews of Romeo and Juliet and The Music Man

The Great River Shakespeare Festival, now in its twelfth season in Winona, Minnesota, is increasingly being discovered by Twin City audiences seeking top rate, highly accessible Shakespeare and other work, accessed by way of a beautiful drive along the Mississippi River for which the festival is named. Last year, 10,793 people attended performances in a 425 seat theater. This year's festival includes Much Ado about Nothing, Romeo and Julie, and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.

Christopher Gerson and Tarah Flanagan
Much Ado about Nothing is one of Shakespeare's most balanced works, blending heartfelt romance, comedy that is both witty and zany, and serious themes of trust and forgiveness. Set mostly in the luxurious home of the wealthy Leonato, the main plot thread is the relationship between Leonato's niece Beatrice and Benedick, an officer in the victorious army, spending time reviving themselves as Leonato's guests. Beatrice and Benedick share a history that left each the worst critic of the other, but the army's general Don Pedro sees through those pretenses and plots with good humor, to bring the two together.

A parallel story line regards a younger officer, Claudio, who is Benedick's boon companion, and Leonato's daughter Hero; they are much smitten with one another. After Don Pedro brokers a match between them, his half-brother Don John, jealous of Don Pedro's rank, conspires to destroy that union, to shame Don Pedro, along with those loyal to him. We then meet Dogberry, chief constable of the local watch, who plays a hand hilariously in making matters right. Ah, what tangled webs we weave. But, since Much Ado is well known as a comedy, there can be little doubt things will end on the bright side—but getting there is such a treat.

This is one of my favorite of the Bard's plays, and GRSF's fantastic 2005 production happened to be our introduction to company. Thus, I awaited this season's production with mixed feelings—looking forward to another top-of-line experience, fearing that it would be hard to meet the exuberance we felt in 2005, the result of the play itself and the discovery of this wonderful theater. The outcome is a delightful presentation of this wise and wonderful play. If it did not ignite my mind with the brilliance so unexpectedly encountered in 2005—and how could it?—there is much to love in the 2015 retelling, and not a thing to disparage.

The love starts with the pairing of long time GRSF players Christopher Gerson and Tarah Flanagan as Benedick and Beatrice, the prototype of sparring partners whose animosity masks their affection. These actors bring their respective characters to full life, basking in the pleasure of their verbal word-play, torn asunder by the thought that perhaps what feels like mutual dislike is actually a much sweeter emotion, and tenderly drawing themselves to one another when the truth wills out. Gerson has been a glorious presence in every GRSF we have seen. His hyperkinetic movement is well suited to this Benedick. Yet, when matters become somber, and he must tread lightly on the path between loyalty to his sworn friend or his lady love, he becomes deeply inwardly shaded. Flanagan's Beatrice is flinty and sure-minded, yet manages to reveal that kernel of a sense of what she is giving up with her protestations of love, men, and in particular, Benedick.

The second couple are well played by Brian White (Claudio) and Stephanie Lambourn (Hero). Their parts have neither the flourish nor the depth of Benedick and Beatrice, but White and Lambourn have chemistry that gives their love a ring of truth. When Claudio is made to refute that love (following the dastardly doings of Don John), the pain and disgust he feels, along with the devastation Hero suffers, are equally made real, leading up to the end where they convey contrition and forgiveness to make the happy ending feel authentic.

Michael Fitzpatrick plays Leonato as a generous host, abundant in good cheer, then torn asunder between believing in his daughter's virtue, and maintaining his honor in the light of the evidence fabricated by Don John. Andrew Carlson is a stalwart Don Pedro, his confidence in and support for his soldiers boosted by military success, while his brother Don John is played by Robert Ramirez as a snake lying in wait to strike, earning the hisses that greeted him (along with hearty applause) at the curtain call. Chris Mixon is a wonderfully goofy Dogberry, managing in spite of himself to corral a rag tag set of bumblers into the local watch. The rest of the cast, in smaller rolls, all do well by Shakespeare's strong script and James Edmundson's direction, moving the action swiftly without obscuring any turns of the plot, and spooning out a broth of affection over the whole production.

As is typical at GRSF, the physical production is simple. A steel scaffold that also serves as settings for Romeo and Juliet is adorned with terra cotta arches and festooned with vined flowers to become Leonato's castle. The costumes were designed to place the characters in the early 20th century, while retaining the Italian setting. The lighting works well, especially in the scenes of deception, both comic and sinister, to differentiate what characters on stage can and cannot see. Songs composed by cast member Silas Sellnow are slight, but Tarah Flanagan's choreography adds elegant grace to the proceedings.

Overall, this Much Ado is really not about nothing, for there is a genuine something there. There is performance and production of high caliber; a story that constantly amuses and at times generates gales of laughter, while always maintaining a tender heart; and there is the satisfaction of things coming to an end in accordance with the behaviors and moral fiber of the characters we have come to know. While the production did not blow me away with the awe of discovery I felt upon first meeting the Great River Shakespeare Festival, it is none the less a masterful telling of a timeless and sharply entertaining tale.

Season XII of Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 2, 2015, at the Performing Arts Center, Winona State University, Winona, MN. Tickets: For performance and other events schedule and tickets call 952-474-5951 or go to

Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: James Edmondson; Scenic Designer: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Designer: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Designer: Rebecca Bernstein; Sound Designer: Matthew Tibbs; Properties Director: Nikki Kulas; Song Writer: Silas Sellnow; Stage Manager: Christopher B. Sadler; Text Coach/Assistant Director: Jess Shoemaker; Choreographer: Tarah Flanagan; Assistant Lighting Design: Martha Carter; Assistant Costume Designer: Kristal Firman; Assistant Sound Designer: Adam Harris; Stage Management Intern: Violet Smith; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Technical Director: Megan Morey.

Cast: Caroline Amos (Ursula), Bailey Bestul (Will Squeal/Sexton), Benjamin Boucvalt (Verges), Leslie Brott (Antonia), Rosemary Brownlow (Margaret). Andrew Carlson (Don Pedro), Justin Erbe (Francis Pickbone), Michael Fitzpatrick (Leonato), Tarah Flanagan (Beatrice), Christopher Gerson (Benedick), JuCoby Johnson (Friar Francis), Stephanie Lambourn (Hero), John Maltese (Borachio), Chris Mixon (Dogberry), Emily Perkins (Little John Doight), Jim Poulos (Conrad), James Queen (George Seacoal), Robert Ramirez (Don John), Silas Sellnow (Balthasar), Brian White (Claudio).

Photo: Sydney Swanson

- Arthur Dorman

Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region

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