By Beki Pineda, Image credit: Colorado Shakespeare Festival, J. Koskinen

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Jim Helsinger. Produced by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre on the University of Colorado campus) through Aug. 9. Tickets available at 303-492-8008 or www.coloradoshakes.org.

Between film and live performances, I’ve probably seen 20 or so versions of MUCH ADO, including the recent National Theatre Live filmed performance. This was definitely one of the best! It is a familiar tale that pits the dark and dramatic story of Claudio and Hero’s romance interrupted by jealousy against the comic coupling of the reluctant lovers Benedick and Beatrice. Both sides of the story are given equal treatment, leading to dual happy endings.

In some productions of Shakespeare, it is difficult to keep track of who is who within families, or on which side of the conflict a certain actor may fall. It’s usually because the costumes are so similar. But it was amazingly easy to keep the characters straight in this version. There are subtle differences in their clothing, in both style and color. Don Pedro (Geoffrey Kent) and his men looked handsome in their turned-up collars and tight pants, while Don John (played by Benaiah Anderson), the bad guy from the same family, had slightly darker shades of blue and tan in his costume that set him apart from the others. The denizens of the house of Leonato wore lighter and looser clothing appropriate for a summer country house in Italy.

Director Jim Helsinger mined the script for every comic turn and inserted nonverbal physical comedy wherever appropriate. The two gulling scenes—during which both Beatrice and Benedick, on separate occasions, “overhear” their kinsmen talking about how one loves the other—are prime examples of comic timing and using the set to full advantage. Every motion in every scene is given motivation. For example, an empty ladder was needed on stage for one of these scenes, so a bit of business was devised that made it seem logical to have a ladder on stage and then to have the groundsman leave it unoccupied. Even the scene changes performed in full view are choreographed with precision and authenticity.

The play is written to allow one-way conversations by actors to the audience. Vanessa Morosco, who plays Beatrice, and Peter Simon Hilton, playing Benedick, appear to be entirely comfortable in soliciting advice from and interacting with the audience. Vanessa even does one of her long speeches while dripping wet. She is a master of comic facial expression and in adding a tiny physical sting to her well-delivered comebacks to Benedick’s insults. But when her cousin is wronged and she is unable to avenge her because of her gender, her appeal to Benedick to do it for her is pure Mama Lion. By the same token, Benedick must choose between his loyalty to his kinsmen and his love for and desire to please Beatrice. His conflict is palpable and tormented.

The entire cast did fine work, but I would especially like to call out Rodney Lizcano as an excellent ass, and his partner in crime solving, Sam Sandoe as Verges. Every time they came on stage (or left), the audience laughed. Rachel Turner as the wronged Hero was lovely; Casey Andree as the too-gullible Claudio was handsome and forlorn. Sam Hardy as the villainous Borachio was both sleazy and repentant. Margaret, the unwitting participant in the dupe, was played with spunk by Stephanie Spector.

All in all, a most enjoyable production under the stars—Shakespeare at its best! If you are introducing a young one to the Bard this summer, this would be a good show to start with. It’s funny enough to keep their attention, but with complications that point out differences in customs between that time in history and this one. Great for conversations after the show.

WOW factor: 9