Sweet & Sour 

Shakespeare gets skewered, but only half-baked.

It's damn near impossible to get irritated at a theater company that enthusiastically stages classical and quasi-classical plays for free in the open air. There may be a more enjoyable way to spend a warm summer night with the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, but it would probably have to involve cucumber martinis or Tin Roof sundaes.

The CleveShakes production of Sweet Love, Adieu offers its share of giggles, but this parody of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is not nearly as amusing as it could have been, given a different directorial approach and some more capable performances.

Spinning out the story of old Will's doomed love affair entirely in rhyming couplets, playwright Ryan J.W. Smith is intent on having fun with the familiar archetypes -- from an aged but randy Lord Edmund, who wants ripe young Anne for himself, to Anne's earnest stud-lover, William. Indeed, Smith romps through the rhyming dictionary with glee, his phrase structures nicely echoing the Elizabethan style.

But multitalented director Larry Nehring chooses to play virtually each broadly written scene equally broadly, which inevitably punctures the fragile balloon of the farce. Imagine, for instance, Leslie Nielsen in the movie Airplane! delivering his classic "Don't call me Shirley" line with a wink and a nudge to the ribs. The only reason that gag (along with everything else in that flick) is hilarious is because it's all played dead straight and at a brisk pace that keeps the meringue-light conceit from collapsing.

The eager but uneven cast of Sweet Love does what it can under these circumstances. As William, Tony Petrello bellows his amatory concerns in a one-note bleat from the start, leaving him no avenue to shape his character. Kelly Strand has a better time of it, bringing a spirited edge to the virginal Anne. Lord Edmund, played by Tyson Douglas Rand, is suitably lecherous, complete with a Snidely Whiplash cape. But as Ridley and Latimore, William's supposedly comical wingmen, the flat-toned Michael Broughton and Bryan Ritchey never hit upon a guy-chemistry that clicks.

Perhaps the most captivating performance is John Lynch's amusing take on the Friar. Employing a Monty Pythonesque lateral lisp and some deft stage business, Lynch shows how a small role, precisely handled, can stand out amid a cacophony of yelling and mugging.

While the elapsed time of a production is rarely a good metric for calculating pace, suffice it to say that two hours and 10 minutes with no intermission is a bit bloated for this type of fare. In addition to allowing scenes to clatter along instead of zip, director Nehring misses some clear opportunities for hilarity. (A series of swordfights could have become a clever running joke, given an imaginative twist, but they come off simply as elementary exercises in Stage Fighting 101.)

It all shuffles to a predictably happy conclusion, with lovers joined and villains properly punished -- making for an evening that's pleasant, but not as engaging or hilarious as it might have been.

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