Sixteenth-century intrigue is proving drama enough for the excited teens performing in the annual Summer Youth Shakespeare Theatre's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" at Laurel Mill Playhouse.
For the fourth year running, director Michael Hartsfield, of Laurel (who also designed the set and tech), has transformed the intimate theater into a romantic setting for local youth set on exploring the Bard's poetic storytelling. Written circa 1598, "Much Ado About Nothing" is one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies.
Focusing on hilarious conflicts between characters of the opposite sex that revolve around typical Shakespearean themes such as pride, cuckoldry and mistaken identity, "Much Ado About Nothing" tells the tale of two pairs of lovers driven by the winds of trickery.
Claudio and Hero are wide-eyed innocents, played by Nicholas Whittaker and Skylar Hill, who become separated by deceit on their wedding day. Shakespeare fans will also reunite with the sophisticated adversaries Benedick and Beatrice, played by Laurel residents Jacob Rocco and Emen-Obong Akpan, who end up tumbling into love with some devious help from their friends.
Rounding out the cast of mostly well-meaning characters, Laurel residents Nsikan Akpan as Leonata; Meghan Abdo and Allison Thompson as Antonia; Alexis Thompson as Constanza; Kaitlyn Johnston-Napora as Friar Francis; Mary Kilgallon as Verges; and Mike Culhane as Balthasar are joined by Jamal Barringer as Don Pedro; Justin Young as Don John; Victor Deppe as Borachio; Christina O'Brien as Dogberry; Alex Pobly as the messenger; Roshan Davis as Margaret; and Emily Brunn as the Sexton.
From the moment the stage lights brighten, Hartsfield's attractive cast "gets" the story and the language so naturally in this briskly paced production that little iambic pentameter is heard. And Kim Delk's stunning period costumes add just the right touch of authenticity.
The story begins as Prince Don Pedro returns victorious from war with his officers Claudio and Benedick. Benedick and Beatrice take up where they obviously left off — hurling Elizabethan insults at each other like cyber punches — while Claudio falls into instant love with Hero.
But of course there is mischief brewing. The illegitimate brother of the Prince, Don John is jealous of Claudio's promotion and of his brother's power. As Claudio and Hero plan to marry and a masquerade ball is held to celebrate, he sullenly schemes to destroy Hero's character and ruin the wedding.
Many twists and much spying and eavesdropping later, the plot eventually travels to a satisfying end. True love prevails, the wicked are justly exposed and other bits of tomfoolery forgiven when all ends well. A careful balance of light and dark elements, "Much Ado" meditates some on honor, shame and politics, but it is first a light-hearted comedy; and no one dies.
Shakespeare can be challenging material for community actors of any experience level. Inevitable bumps in timing and dialogue will happen occasionally, and it is difficult to improvise Shakespeare in a pinch. Laurel Mill Playhouse's "Much Ado about Nothing" suffered one or two such confusing moments opening night, but Hartsfield's cast stepped up admirably to cover.
More notably, many of the performances were captivating.
As Don Pedro, Barringer anchored the show deftly. Nsikan Akpan as Leonata (Hartsfield freely cast females in male roles) carried her characterization of Hero's parent with a commanding presence and magnificent hairstyle.
O'Brien was relentless and amusing as the "ass" Dogberry, and Davis as Hero's chambermaid wore her complicity beautifully.
Whittaker and Rocco as Claudio and Benedick were easily believable both as comrades in arms and as fools in love. Emen-Obong Akpan's performance as Beatrice was full of charm and energy. In lovely contrast, Hill's innocent portrayal of the gentle Hero broke hearts when she was falsely accused and shamed.
The consistent quality of the performances in "Much Ado About Nothing" overall speaks very highly of the hard work all the cast and crew have invested. Laurel Mill Playhouse directs the same attention and support to its Summer Youth Shakespeare Theatre as it does to any other show.
As fresh and winning as its ensemble cast, "Much Ado About Nothing" shines.
"Much Ado About Nothing" continues through July 14 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees on July 7 and 14 at 2 p.m. General admission is $15. Students, 18 and under; and seniors; 65 and over, pay $12. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.