At the intermission of Much Ado About Nothing last Friday, few desperate theatergoers were lined up at the bar. It was a good sign. After all, several recent offerings by the Great Lakes Theater Festival -- say, its charmless, slacker Peter Pan or the Romeo and Juliet pointlessly obscured by dour Ingmar Bergman-worthy symbolism -- have left audiences in need of a stiff drink.
But under the management of promising new artistic director Charles Fee, the festival seems to have pulled out of kamikaze mode, hopefully just in time.
Originally formulated for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, this version of Much Ado takes place in what looks like a booming post-World War II Miami Beach resort. Director Drew Barr's Messina is all Technicolor, radiating the vibrant tones of a retro-chic travel poster. Here is a nostalgic portrait of postwar America as if it had been fully populated with Vargas pin-up girls and lusty soldier boys, all perpetually on the verge of doing the jitterbug. Unfortunately, the setting isn't always apt: The classically Elizabethan morality tale of Hero, a bride-to-be whose virginity is impugned by the evil Don John, and Claudio, her hopeful husband, seems foolishly anachronistic against a backdrop of licentious kewpie dolls and sex-starved GIs.
But fortunately, the other half of the plot -- namely, Beatrice and Benedick's screwball comedy-cum-love-story -- thrives in this hep-cat replanting. Haughty and afraid of showing vulnerability, these battling lovers translate perfectly into the time period: Hepburn & Tracy in iambic pentameter.
With his pugnacious, bantam rooster stances, David Anthony Smith gives us the Benedick that James Cagney might have portrayed. He makes aggression as invigorating as a spring breeze. Then, subdued by love by the beginning of the second act, he appears in a pair of Bermuda shorts looking utterly chastened -- as if revealing his skinny gams is itself an admission of human vulnerability. It's a superb comic performance that holds the evening together.
Erika Rolfsrud's Beatrice is a tempestuous and formidable foil who knowingly twirls her sunglasses and stomps around in candy-colored sundresses. Even as the two parry, there's no doubt that they'll up end in a picturesque embrace.
Also outstanding, bringing a cougar's intensity to Shakespeare's most unmotivated villain, is Roderick Hill as the malevolent Don John. Dogberry -- the night watchman and self-proclaimed ass who brings Benedick and Beatrice together -- and his minions are ingeniously rendered as scouts in knee pants. Playing "Taps" and saluting the flag, they impart a giddy touch of Norman Rockwell to the proceedings. In a perfectly subversive touch, Triney Sandoval renders the mentally challenged constable in a thick Jeb Bush dialect.
Delving further into retro Americana, director Barr jazzes up the music -- literally. A melancholy "Hey Nonny Nonny" song is jettisoned for a Sinatra parody with a touch of Looney Tunes. A masquerade ball of swing-dancing Groucho Marx look-alikes is also lifted straight from Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You. Derivative, yes, but providing a good excuse for Kim Krumm Sorenson's loving parodies of Life magazine's '40s fashions, Gage Williams's effortless vintage picture postcard settings, and Janiece Kelley Kiteley's perpetually playful choreography.
The show is often guilty of winking too ardently. In its mad compulsion to have fun, it often brushes off Shakespeare's darker intentions. But it's wonderful to see a Great Lakes Theater Festival audience experiencing a great time (at last!) instead of a mere cultural event.