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Romance is Comical and All-Consuming in Much Ado About Nothing at the Al Fresco Ohio Shakespeare Festival 

Battling lovers among the leaves

Scarlett and Rhett. Dick and Liz. Popeye and Olive Oyl. We are always drawn to love affairs of the torrid variety, because the flame that consumes itself burns so much brighter. And that is why Much Ado About Nothing has been providing royalty checks to Bill Shakespeare for centuries.

The two lovers at the core of this play, Benedick and Beatrice, must ignite quickly and then simmer on a boil for a long time, until the celebratory conclusion. And happily, that passion is captured in this thoroughly entertaining production at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, on the grounds of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens.

Bernard Bygott as Benedick fulminates early on about his opposition to marriage and his dislike for Leonato's niece Beatrice. And Lara Mielcarek's Beatrice matches him snark for snark until Leonato (a twinkly Robert Hawkes) and others set up a sting operation where B&B separately overhear conversations that lead them to think that each loves the other.

This leads to some of the funniest scenes in the play, as Bygott crawls up the outside of a staircase, doing a dandy impression of Lucille Ball in awkward physical distress, as Benedick tries to hear the details of Beatrice's "love" for him. Similarly, Mielcarek contorts herself upstairs and down to hear more about Benedick's ardor for her.

In a parallel love story, Claudio (an earnest Joe Pine) falls in love with Leonato's daughter Hero, but swerves away from her when the nasty Don John tricks Claudio into believing that Hero has taken another lover, his brother Don Pedro, on the eve of their marriage.

Want more laughs? Just wait until Act 2, when constable Dogberry (a clueless and pompous Geoff Knox) leads his scruffy band of dysfunctional deputies, summoned by the flatulent trumpet wheezes blown by his lieutenant Verges (Scott Campbell). Their Keystone Kop-ish activities actually lead to the reconciliation, when Don John's nefarious plot is revealed and Beatrice and Benedick give in to their fake love jones ... which turns out to be real.

The performances, under the deft direction of Terry Burgler, are crisp and pointed, with some of the actors responding in the moment to reactions from the audience. This never fails to get the attention of the audience member thus highlighted, and gives everyone the feeling that must have pervaded the crowds that gathered at the lip of the stage when these plays were first produced at the Globe Theater.

Other standouts in the cast include David McNees as the helpful and sly Don Pedro; Ryan Zarecki, who choreographs and then performs some stunning swordplay as Don John aide Borachio; Henry C. Bishop and Mark Stoffer as particularly daft fellows in Dogberry's squad of misfit toys; and Tess Burgler as poor, put-upon Hero, along with Katie Zarecki as her gentlewoman.

It seems that director Burgler's focus is on broad and even slapstick comedy in this production, so Jason Leupold as Don John seems rather bland as villains go. Indeed, the motivation of Don John seems even more vague than usual in this telling, relegating this versified plotline to almost an afterthought. That may not satisfy purists, but what the hell.

When he's at his best, director Burgler manages to find the unique performance qualities in each of his actors, enabling him to populate the stage with distinctive people who look like a prized collection of Royal Doulton character mugs come to life.

But Leupold, the Zareckis and others have another treat in store, if you arrive for the pre-show "greenshow." As directed by Tess Burgler, this is always a festive, foot-stomping gas ("Huzzah!") as the mostly younger members of the cast sing drinking songs and love songs, always followed by a parody of Shakespeare. In this instance, that comedy piece involves a song about how the dead women in Shakespeare plays aren't always deceased. They croon clever lyrics, advising that Romeo should "think twice and pump the brakes" before he commits suicide. It all provides a half-hour theatrical amuse-bouche that genuinely amuses. Don't miss it.

In fact, you shouldn't let another summer go by without experiencing this very special OSF treat. Set outdoors by a lagoon at the rear of the punctiliously manicured Stan Hywet grounds, there is no lovelier setting for any sort of play, particularly Shakespeare. Come early and bring a picnic dinner, purchase a glass of wine, beer or other refreshment (no outside alcohol permitted), take a stroll through the gardens and the path around the lagoon, and then top it off with a truly masterful rendition of our language's finest writing. In the words of another fine scribbler, who could ask for anything more?

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