An outdoor 'Much Ado' triumphs over all

The steamy Clark Park production stars (from left) Allen Radway, John Jarboe, Marla Burkholder, and Victoria Frings.
The steamy Clark Park production stars (from left) Allen Radway, John Jarboe, Marla Burkholder, and Victoria Frings. (MARIA MOLLER)
Posted: July 22, 2011

Let it be known that the cast and crew of Shakespeare in Clark Park's Much Ado About Nothing have my deepest admiration. It can't be easy mounting a free production in what currently functions as the park's dust bowl. It's enough that those involved constantly have to wrestle their audience's attention away from mosquitoes, loose dogs, wandering children, and an ice cream truck blaring a looping "La Cucaracha" refrain. It's above and beyond the call of duty to do so during a week when the mercury plans to settle on or around a moist 95 degrees.

And yet somehow this company's take on Will's comic treatment of a pair of couples who attempt to resist Cupid's bull's-eyes provides a breezy respite from the weather. Directed by Alex Torra, scenes are alternately stylized (during a costume party, a moving tableau of guests in masks creeps en masse behind the foreground action), slapsticky (Johnny Smith's Dogberry channels Barney Fife-era Don Knotts), or naturalistic. The mix keeps things lively, and - combined with Andrew Nelson's Weill-style musical direction, heavy on the tubas and trombones - it not only drowns out that ice cream truck, but also helps create a self-contained sense of place in that uncontained space.

A sense of time is less clear. Cousins Hero (Marla Burkholder) and Beatrice (Victoria Frings) open the show singing a duet and wearing dresses that could be lifted from a World War II USO performance, but the men wear soldiers' uniforms that recall the Civil War. Maybe costumer Erica Hoelscher hoped to foster the idea that postwar love games are timeless, but instead, she just creates confusion.

The antipathy between Frings' Beatrice and Allen Radway's Benedick, however, comes across loud and clear. United in their defiance of romance, and later in their submission to it, they have a rapport and mutual feigned disdain that sounds completely contemporary, even cloaked as it is in Elizabethan phrasing.

Of course, this is a handy interpretation for families bringing along reluctant teens and tweens. Younger audience members will no doubt respond to Smith's Dogberry, whether or not their parents made them watch old episodes of The Andy Griffith Show, and particularly when really, really tall Nathan Holt and really comparatively small Jess Conda antagonize Dogberry in fine Looney Tunes form as schemers Conrade and Borachio.

Aside from their soaked-through costumes, this cast stays cool and offers West Philly a solid reason to venture away from its air-conditioned comfort and sit outside with the neighbors.

Much Ado About Nothing

Playing at: Clark Park bowl, 43d and Chester Sts. Through Sunday. Free. Information: 215-462-2115,

Follow Wendy Rosenfield on Twitter at #philastage.

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