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Shakespeare West’s inaugural season continues with a stylishly contemporary Much Ado About Nothing. In keeping with the Blackbird Theatre’s penchant for pushing the limits of adaptations, this production, adapted and directed by Brian Carbine, plays with gender roles and musical showmanship to give a modern spin to a pair of comic love stories.

Among the primary conceits of this staging is the reverse-gender casting, most notably romantically pairing two women in Beatrice (Diviin Huff) and Benedick (Emily Patton-Levickas) and two men in Hero (Forrest Hejkal) and Claudio (Maxim Hunt). This is a full, pronoun-changing choice — not a woman in the guise of a man, but rather Lady Benedick and Lord Hero, in every respect addressed and considered as such. Carbine and his cast play the bulk of the story faithfully, making the same-sex relationships feel less like the entire point of the production and rather an unremarkable fact. In fact, just as interesting is the reverberating effect on the platonic and familial relationships surrounding the main couples: instead of the men and women conferring separately, only crossing the divide to pair off and marry, Hejkal and Huff are closest confidantes, and Patton-Levickas sufficiently justifies a female Benedick’s supposed revulsion of women by comfortably dude-ing it up with the guys. Occasionally, the text staunchly refuses to bend to the choice, or the staging gets mired in the device, but these are ultimately forgivable in the face of a well-propelled narrative and moments of sweet discovery.

The production features a dozen performers in total, peopling the two friendly camps of traveling Don Pedro (James Walrod) and host Leonato (Dan Johnson). The different groups are masterfully costumed by Sarah Gypsy West and Emily Tipton, who use — and deliberately overlap — navy with polka dots and gray with stripes to clearly denote the allegiances; combined with designer Barton Bund’s sail-inspired setting in Ann Arbor's West Park band shell, the production has the indulgent feel of a casual-trendy regatta party. It’s a fair enough fit for a celebration of young love, as combative Beatrice and Benedick’s thin line between hate and love is counterpoint to the meeker Claudio and Hero’s love at first sight, before their pure and delicate bond is almost undone by a childish mistaken-identity prank. As the nearly motiveless mastermind of this deception, Jamie Weeder toys with a forced, scowling cool that belies the bastard Don John’s misfit identity. The trickier machinations that unearth Beatrice and Benedick’s mutual attraction are played blatantly but well by the ensemble, and Huff and Patton-Levickas respond with similar frankness that ably pushes the two together. Beyond the revelry of Leonato’s home, lone clown and plot device Andrew Rosdail has a charming turn as an inept constable, whose ridiculous concept of banter with his right-hand man is sweetly amusing, if residing far outside the rest of the play.

Another major throughline is the use of song and dance, bringing the highly musical performances of the Elizabethan stage to the common era via the ubiquitous anthems of a single rock group. Songs are incorporated both organically and inorganically; for the largest show pieces, the action comes to a complete stop in service of full-cast singing and modern-feeling choreography. The jovial and youthful spark of these production numbers lends a hint (and sometimes more) of pageantry, never more evident than in a showy number in which the demonstrative Johnson rightly shines. As with the unconventional casting, the musical elements have varying success within the larger framework; however, independent of the flow, each number is thoughtfully constructed and energetically performed.

Shakespeare’s story of a weekend party during which people fall in love and variously stop listening to their better judgment is still sweet and vibrant, but this Much Ado breathes different life into the narrative by altering story elements and working with the strictures these changes present. The result is an exuberant production that betrays some unevenness, but overall is equal parts provocative in its curiosity and winning in letting its plainest affections speak for themselves.


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