Shakespeare Summer Festival Presents:
Much Ado About Something: 35 Years Of Summer Shakespeare
A local tradition for 35 years, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival kicked off this year’s Summer Shakespeare on August 31. I love the shift in scheduling; with Tennessee’s heat, I like to have my Summer Shakespeare lasting past the start of Fall. When we attended the show on Saturday, September 9, we were comfortably warm and later put on our hoodies while enjoying the cool night air. Don’t plan on wearing your lightest summer dress or shortest shorts; comfortable layers and a sharable blanket are the way to go. Although blanket seating and lawn chairs are comfortable, and the crowd of people looked quite cozy in their personal spaces, I enjoy the bleacher seating; you won’t have a person taller than you blocking your view, and you don’t need to pack and carry heavy, unwieldy items.
Attending at ONEC1TY is always easier than I think it will be; the signs for parking are clear, the garage is free, and there are volunteers with programs and stickers and donation buckets, ready to send you in the right direction. Food trucks and the “posh privies” fill one end of the green space. At the other end are the drinks tent (where we bought Yazoo’s Shake’s Beer, which is as delicious as I’d hoped) and the Nashville Shakespeare tent, where I bought tasty kettle corn among candies and merch. I was surprised at how cheap the concessions are; somehow this non-profit has less of a mark-up than national theater chains.
ONEC1TY gives the festival a more hip vibe than at their Academy Park location, but I’d be hard-pressed to have a strong preference for either. Both are well maintained, are easy to get a good view of the stage, and have free parking and easy accessibility. I will say that Academy Park does have fewer fire trucks or helicopters flying overhead, but those can’t spoil a performance.
Due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to attend the pre-show lecture or show, but those are well worth attending (and since the food lines are long, you can listen while waiting for your food).
This year’s show is Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy about two earnest and gullible people who fall in love, their cynical and sarcastic friends who also fall in love, and the difficulties they face as a malevolent character does his best to spoil everyone’s happiness. Since this is a Shakespeare comedy, someone impersonates another person and a death is faked. This play is one of his less convoluted comedies, so it’s not difficult to keep up (and if you do get lost, the program has a brief synopsis).
This performance is 70’s themed: under the program title it reads, “Welcome to Nashville, 1973.” The setting for this play is more than just costuming and decorations, both of which are fun and groovy (due to Costume Designer Alexis Grigsby and Scenic Designer Shane Lowery). A live band performs hit songs from the 70’s as incidental music with a great funky guitar played by Nick Bilski. The locations are renamed: the first lines of the play are changed from their European locales to “I learn from this letter that Don Pedro of San Diego comes this night to Nashville.” This actually helps, making it easier to keep locations in mind, and it allows for some fresh humor, including a joke about the “knaves of Smyrna.” Some of the slang or arcane Elizabethan references are changed to their 70’s counterparts, and two characters play Twister while having a conversation. The biggest alteration is the gender-swap of Governor Leanato to Governor Leanata (and their sibling from Antonio to Antonia). This didn’t alter that much, because the shift of more powerful women on stage is still restrained to the Elizabethan standards of the play. It did, though, make Leanata’s furious response to a slander against her daughter more interesting.
Andrew Johnson plays a marvelous Benedick, his self-confidence balanced by laid-back self-consciousness. There are (broadly speaking) two types of cynics: those who are cynical through naiveté, and those who are cynical in response to disappointment. His loud and confident witticisms are the first, cheerful and funny, making his eager and easy jump into love plausible; instead of a betrayal of his nature, they show to be his real self casting off the fear of vulnerability. Jakholbi Murry played Claudio, the eager and earnest friend of Benedick, who falls instantly in love with Hero, Leonata’s daughter. He gave Claudio an “aw shucks” energy and a teenage vibe, making his character’s unadmirable actions slightly more forgivable. Gerold Oliver is Don John, the villain of the piece, and his evil laugh is hearty and malicious. Alan Lee and Brian Webb Russell are boisterous and cheerful as Dogberry and Verges, the incompetent fools who manage to save everything.
Besides the humor of the writing and story, the play is full of slapstick, each actor getting laughs with their cartoony sneaking about and eavesdropping. The reason Shakespeare has been performed for so long is because he has a complete forehead; he’s both lowbrow and highbrow.
Directed by the Executive Artistic Director, Denise Hicks, this 35th season was a great time, and everything you expect from The Nashville Shakespeare Festival. Here’s to 35 more years!
Performances continue Thursdays-Sundays at ONEC1TY until September 24, and at Academy Park September 28-October 1. For more information, including pre-show lectures and performances, as well as the food truck schedule: Summer Shakespeare 2023