The Web site for the American Players Theater is www.playinthewoods.com, and they aren't kidding. You have to make a short trek through the woods to get to the outdoor theater, itself. Audiences of evening shows are treated to a gorgeous canopy of stars, comfortable breezes, and even a little birdsong. It's a beautiful setting and one of my favorite theaters. The surroundings only serve to enhance the show.
Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kenneth Albers and running through October 7, is about lovers and trickery in Messina: Claudio and Hero, who fall in love quickly, but are tricked by the duplicitous Don John into slander and heartbreak; and Beatrice and Benedick, who, after spurning the ideas of love and marriage, inevitably fall for each other through the tricks of their well-meaning friends.
Set in the gardens of a grand house in Messina, summertime outdoors provides the perfect atmosphere. By the time we reach the scene at Hero's tomb, it's pitch black, and the stage is barely illuminated by candle bearers. It's eerie and somber, and so perfectly captures the feel of the scene more aptly than any indoor showing could. The actors are extraordinary. Even the minor characters—Antonio (James Ridge), Margaret (Susan Shunk), and Ursula (Sarah Day)—are full of delightful spunk and easily hold their own amongst their larger-than-life protagonists. Tracy Michelle Arnold (Beatrice), Ted Deasy (Benedick), and Marcus Truschinski (Claudio) are perfect comedians. Truschinski's delivery while convincing Benedick of Beatrice's love, in particular, is to die for, while Truschinski and Leah Dutchin (Hero) portray grief with such aplomb, it is truly heartbreaking. Borachio's (David Daniel) drunken details of tricking Claudio into doubting Hero's fidelity, and the fondling of his comrade, is one of the funniest scenes and bodes much laughter. The only fault with the actors is that Dogberry (Drew Brhel), however well portrayed, could be even more hammy and over-the-top (though it might be my own failing, as I'm so in love with Michael Keaton's performance of the character in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film adaptation that it's hard to measure up, in my estimation). The highlight of the show, surprisingly, is Michael Gotch's portrayal of Don John, Don Pedro's bastard brother whose machinations are the source the play's main discord. The role is little more than a plot point; a reason for the conflict and exposition. In a play with stellar, hilarious, and lovable characters, Don John hardly measures up to the appeal of Beatrice or Benedick, or Dogberry, for that matter. Gotch, however, rises to the challenge, and imbues the character with so much diffidence and smarmy attitude that he lights up the stage. He receives as many laughs for a raised eyebrow, a haughty swagger, or an exaggerated gesture as Benedick does for all his wit or Dogberry for his slapstick. I could watch him for hours. Gotch could star in his own spin-off series, The Adventures of Don John. I'm already a fan! Further, the costumes for this production are fantastic, amazingly rich and detailed.
The American Players Theater puts on a truly spectacular production with a brilliant cast, and I cannot wait to see what they do in the future. Oh, and I should warn you: The first few rows might get wet. And if my glowing praise isn't enough to pique your interest, that last bit should.