There are a lot of shows opening in Austin the next few weeks specifically themed for the holiday season, but if you’re looking for a fun, cozy comedy full of warmth and cheer, Austin Shakespeare has an option that might fit the bill without a hint of tinsel in sight — their new production of “Much Ado about Nothing,” running through Dec. 3 in the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center.
“Much Ado” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, in large part because of how influential it has been over the entire genre of the romantic comedy as we know it today. The bickering between romantic leads Beatrice and Benedick, full of sarcastic jabs, evolves over the course of the play into loving jests just as in modern rom-coms.
The story of the younger lovers, Claudio and Hero, doesn’t age quite as well, defined as it is by men taking the false word of other men over the protestations of women they supposedly love. But this production does its best to mitigate the text’s inherent misogyny through strong character work. Joseph Banks, as Claudio, is delightfully charming and soft-spoken in the show’s first half, focusing more on the character’s feeling of betrayal than his rage upon learning of Hero’s “unfaithfulness.” Corinna Browning, meanwhile, showcases Hero’s quote strength and self-assurance rather than allowing her to simply become a punching bag and victim to the schemes of the play’s villains.
Gwendolyn Kelso and Marc Pouhé, as Beatrice and Benedick, are no slouches, either. They have some of the wittiest and silliest moments of the play, milking both types of comedy for big laughs from the audience. Indeed, the entire production is silly, in a truly endearing way. Gifted physical comedians Toby Minor and Susan Myburgh, as the chief of the city’s citizen-police and his partner Verges, respectively, bring the show its moment of broadest humor as well as the few times that the humor gets a bit over-the-top.
The decision by director Ann Ciccolella to place this production in the Belle Époque, to the saucy rhythms of bossa nova music (with original compositions by Greg Bolin), works beautifully with Shakespeare’s text, turning the setting of Messina, Sicily, into a swinging beachside resort that provides a delightful backdrop for love and hijinks. Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Anthony’s all-white set, evocatively illuminated by a variety of clever lighting schemes, work with Benjamin Taylor Ridgway’s costumes to further develop this atmosphere that’s ripe for a romp.
Though not as soul-searching as Shakespeare’s tragedies, and certainly filled with gender politics that are particularly painful and abrasive in the culture of today’s world, “Much Ado About Nothing” still stands up as an endearing love story filled with wacky situations, clever jokes and, of course, a happy ending.
“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 3
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive