Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is a cultural gem in Kansas City–for 26 seasons, it has provided free Shakespeare plays for viewers in addition to countless educational opportunities for children in our community. The ‘in the park’ atmosphere is fun, and really does have a festival-vibe; food trucks and people sprawled out on blankets. It’s affordable, easily accessible, and relaxing. You can bring in your own food and drink. You could lay down and take a nap if you want to. Is all of this conducive to taking in and understanding a theatrical production? Maybe not. Does it expose thousands of people to theatre every year that can’t (or aren’t willing to) pay a prime penny for it? Absolutely. More quality theatre is always a good thing, whether people are watching it silently and understanding every word or not. Besides, sweating and eating and being mashed against people you don’t know while watching Shakespeare is how the plays were originally enjoyed, so it’s sort of perfect.
Famously featuring Beatrice and Benedick, masters of wordplay and verbal antics, Much Ado About Nothing is one of William Shakespeare’s most-loved comedies. Don Pedro (Matthew Williamson) and his company of men arrive at Governor Leonato’s (Mark Robbins) house after fighting a war. Pedro’s friend Lord Claudio (Zach Sudbury) falls immediately in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero (Amy O’Connor) and everyone falls over themselves to finalize their match. Meanwhile, Lord Benedick (Darren Kennedy) and Leonato’s niece Beatrice (Cinnamon Schultz) establish their obvious affection for the other by relentlessly cutting each other down, teasing, and jesting. Everyone else involved in the story sets to helping Beatrice and Benedick realize their love for each other while Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John (Jake Walker) commences messing everything up. Bitter and vengeful as all of Shakespeare’s bastard characters are, Don John tricks everyone in Messina into thinking Hero is a harlot and taking Claudio in, and all of the men are reprehensible and cruel about it. The only logical solution anyone can come up with is to have Hero pretend to be dead so everyone feels bad about accusing her of misconduct, and Beatrice makes Benedick pledge to kill Claudio. Everything gets resolved rather quickly when people realize Don John was being antagonistic – and then they all dance.
This is an interesting play, because most of the characters aren’t particularly likable and are condemnable caricatures, and the plot is a whole lot of people miscommunicating and tricking each other. The play is fun when one simply relaxes and remembers that the key is in the title itself: just sit back and enjoy the massive ado everyone is having over nothing at all. It’s sort of pleasant that there isn’t much point to it, but there is a lot of action and great language. Director Sidonie Garrett creates an atmosphere that is perfect for audience members who are less-versed in classical theatre, inserting all sorts of mummery, comedy, and action that isn’t always there. The additional hijinx serve a purpose and don’t particularly distract from the main action.
Garrett has put together an immensely talented cast. Mark Robbins, Matt Rapport, Cinnamon Schultz, Jan Rogge, Darren Kennedy, Scott Cordes, Jake Walker, and David Fritts are all festival veterans that Garrett trusts and has worked with numerous times before. Each of these actors would be worth seeing on their own, but all together – it is an absolute must-see. Schultz and Kennedy have previously proven their chemistry in KCAT’s Sea Marks and easily re-establish the same adorable attraction here. Kennedy stumbles a bit over his words but is charming, relate-able, and his physical comedy is effortless. Schultz revels in the language marvelously but doesn’t exist on the same plane as everyone else stylistically. She is the hardest working person on the stage and it’s admirable, but looks exhausting. Mark Robbins is typically relaxed in his character, both real and larger-than-life in his delivery, and completely understandable and accessible to the audience. He finds an excellent middle ground between respecting the text and being an actual person.
David Fritts as Leonato’s brother, Antonio, is fiery and scrappy when necessary, but never distracting or confusing whilst standing ever in Antonio’s corner. He and Jan Rogge as Ursula, share a tender, private moment while everyone else is dancing that is particularly memorable and sweet. Matthew Williamson is a veritable Disney Prince as Don Pedro, and Zach Sudbury as Claudio is perfectly annoying and petulant. He actually storms off the stage at one point like a child and it’s very funny–there’s a certain courageousness in playing the irritating “Romeo” character, and he embraces it fully. Scott Cordes and R.H. Wilhoit also have fun cameos as Constable and Headborough. They are very much on the same page and in tune with each other; Wilhoit is crazy and neurotic, and Cordes brings a layer of down-home-goodness that helps ground the performance.
Some of the design aspects are a little tired and uninspired. The costumes (designed by Mary Traylor) are hit-or-miss when it comes to fit and the concept is unclear, making the swirling florals and mixture of patterns distracting. Scenic Designer Gene Emerson Friedman seems to strive for a lush fecundity but the whole effect seems artificial and sparse. The lights (designed by Ward Everhart) are excellent, and work beautifully despite the hodgepodge of colors and patterns on the stage.
The fun and inexpensive festival atmosphere should be enough to get you to Southmoreland Park by July 1, and the marvelous acting performances will sweeten the pot. Bring cash so you can donate to this essential part of Kansas City summer. This production of Much Ado About Nothing is a zany hullabaloo, and it’s lovely.
Heart of America Shakespeare Festival
Much Ado About Nothing
Runs through July 1 (reviewed Tuesday, June 19, 2018)
4600 Oak Street, Kansas CityFor more info, visit www.kcshakes.org
Cover photo: Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, “Much Ado About Nothing,”