‘Much Ado About Nothing’ Exudes Playfulness

The Acrosstown Repertory Theatre presents its second installment of Summer Shakespeare. This year it’s the Bard’s most frequently performed comedy that’s still funny 400 years after he wrote it. The play opens on Friday night.

From left, Claudio (Aleksandr Wilde), Don Pedro (Tyson Adams), Benedick (Bryan Reilly) and Leonato (Chuck Lipsig) in a scene from Much Ado About Nothing. (Photo courtesy of Aleksandr Wilde)

Many people don’t fully appreciate the brilliant writing of Shakespeare until they become adults. And, alas, some never appreciate the work of the Bard. Ever.

Chuck Lipsig, Gainesville resident and self-described “theater person,” is an exception.

“I’ve been a Shakespeare nut since I was a teenager,” he said. “When I lived near the Canadian border, I saw a CBC production of As You Like It on TV. It just blew me away!”

Beginning this week, the thickly bearded Lipsig will play the role of Leonato, noble governor of Messina, in the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Beatrice (Anna Marie Kirkpatrick) and Benedick (Bryan Reilly) don’t see eye to eye in a scene from Much Ado About Nothing. (Photo courtesy of Aleksandr Wilde)

The play’s Opening Night is Friday at 8. The play continues through July 16 at the ART complex at 619 S. Main St., in the Historic Baird Hardware Complex. Tickets are $15 ($13 for students, seniors, veterans and active military).

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy about two pairs of lovers with different takes on romance — and a way with words.

“It really is about nothing,” said Carolyne Salt, the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre president who is directing the Summer Shakespeare production. “It’s one of Shakespeare’s fluffier comedies, but it explores a lot of dark concepts, like patriarchy, honor, virtue and the actual nature of love.”

Lipsig is part of a 15-member cast that includes some of Gainesville’s best local stage talent. Anna Marie Kirkpatrick plays Beatrice while Bryan Reilly plays her love/hate interest, Benedick. Young lovers Hero and Claudio are played by Emma Grimm and Aleksandr Wilde, respectively. Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon — and the play’s good-hearted matchmaker — is played by ART regular Tyson Adams.

Much Ado About Nothing shows Shakespeare’s love of the English language. The dialogue contains puns, alliteration, double entendres and general wittiness that audiences might need a few moments, or longer, to grasp.

“I caught some of it when I first read the script, but footnotes helped to explain the joke,” Lipsig said. “In good Shakespeare, the actors convey the meaning.”

Lipsig added that Shakespeare’s characters are often more complex than the playwright gets credit for.

“When you start acting in a Shakespeare play, you end up finding more depth in each character,” he said.

Salt said that she spent several months researching and analyzing the text of Much Ado About Nothing to better understand the dialogue.

“You can’t do a play if the actors don’t know what they’re saying,” she said. “You can pretend, but that’s not what Shakespeare’s about.”

This is the second season of the Acrosstown’s Summer Shakespeare series. Last year, the theater produced (and Salt also directed) Twelfth Night or What You Will and got a great audience response. Much Ado About Nothing was a natural choice for this year.

From left, Hero (Emma Grimm), Margaret (Chelsea Hoyt) and Beatrice (Anna Marie Kirkpatrick) in a scene from Much Ado About Nothing. (Photo courtesy of Aleksandr Wilde)

“A lot of people asked for it,” Salt said. “I wanted to do something that had wide appeal and to give Gainesville what it wanted.”

In recent months, theater companies have taken some noteworthy creative license with Shakespeare. The Hippodrome Theatre set Hamlet in the modern age, using laptops, smartphones and vaporizers as props to enliven the story. In New York City, the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in Central Park staged Julius Caesar with an actor resembling President Trump in the lead role, stirring controversy.

“I think Much Ado About Nothing is relevant without having to do any artistic shenanigans with it,” Salt said. “We’re here to explore the words, the characters and their relationships.”

That being said, there is some gender-bending in the production. Three male characters will be played by women. Lola Bond plays Don Jean rather than Don John, Stephanie Birch plays Conrade, while Lisa Varvel plays Antonia rather than Antonio. For the ART production, Antonia is written as the wife of Leonato rather than as his brother.

“We did it because, honestly, it works better in this day and age and better explores the topic of patriarchy,” Salt said.

The director also chose to keep two racial epithets, the terms Ethiope and Jew, in the script.

“I think it’s important to keep them in to remember how common that was,” she said. “A lot of people whitewash it.”

Like last year’s Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing has musical elements. There are several scenes with music composed and performed by the actors. The Singers of Reformation local madrigal troupe perform the curtain-call music (“Man is for the Woman Made” by Henry Purcell), which they recorded next door at Heartwood Soundstage.

Beatrice (Anna Marie Kirkpatrick) eavesdrops on a conversation between Hero (Emma Grimm), center, and Antonia (Lisa Varvel). (Photo courtesy of Aleksandr Wilde)

Kirkpatrick is appearing in her first Acrosstown play in several years, but she is no stranger to local stages. She most recently performed in Beautiful Thing last fall at the Actors’ Warehouse.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Kirkpatrick enjoys playing the outspoken and witty Beatrice because she’s fun-loving, high-spirited and she’s “her own woman.”

“She had a thing with Benedick and it ended badly,” said Kirkpatrick, noting that the male character’s name said phonetically pretty much summed him up. “Beatrice walked away from that hurt, and then he came back into her world. She’s still bitter, but she gets tricked into falling back in love with him.”

Kirkpatrick was not a fan of Shakespeare when she was younger, but for good reason.

“I’m dyslexic,” she said. “I couldn’t read Shakespeare if you paid me. I got to know Shakespeare through theater.”

She said that one reason she took the role of Beatrice was to get to know Much Ado About Nothing.

“The real trick is to be able to watch the play and understand what’s going on without understanding the words,” Kirkpatrick said. “You see it acted out.”

Benedick (Bryan Reilly) contemplates his next move. (Photo courtesy of Aleksandr Wilde)

Bryan Reilly, who plays Benedick, wouldn’t rank Much Ado About Nothing as his favorite Shakespeare play, but he still appreciates it.

“I love Shakespeare, so even the worst Shakespeare is still amazing writing in my book,” he said.

Earlier this year, Reilly played the character/stereotype Prep in columbinus at the Acrosstown. It was his first theater role since moving to Gainesville last year, but his prior Shakespeare experience elsewhere includes Tybalt in Romeo & Juliet and multiple roles in The Tempest.

“I think Shakespeare scares a lot of audiences,” he said. “It’s on the actors to convey with body language and with the tone of their voice what the words are actually meaning.”

Salt said that after a performance of Twelfth Night last year, she was paid a compliment — or at least she took it as a compliment — from a gentleman who did not typically enjoy Shakespeare.

“He told me he didn’t understand most of the words, but he understood what everyone was saying and had a great time.”

 — Noel Leroux

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Acrosstown Theatre

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Acrosstown Theatre 29.645720, -82.324650 619 S Main St, Gainesville, FL, United States (Directions)

Much Ado About Nothing

at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre
619 S. Main St. (in the Historic Baird Hardware Center)

Performances: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through July 16.
Tickets: $15 general admission, $13 seniors, students, veterans and active military

For further info, visit the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre website.