Shakespeare in the Wild West

Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the original romantic comedies, full of tropes you don’t have to be a Bard scholar to recognize: the bickering twosome who fight their mutual attraction until finally succumbing to each other’s unlikely charms, the tragic misunderstanding that derails a happy engagement, meddling relatives, scheming frenemies.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is the first of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s free summer Shakespeare in the Park productions. It opens Thursday in the C. Douglas Ramey Ampitheatre in Central Park and runs every night except Mondays through July 29.

In an estate on the island of Sicily, a prince and his soldiers relax and recharge after a fierce battle. One soldier, Benedick, rekindles his “merry war” with the sharp-tongued Beatrice, while his sincere sidekick Claudio woos Beatrice's sweet cousin Hero. The villainous Don John starts a rumor that Hero has been unfaithful to Claudio, with devastating results, while the other men of the estate play matchmaker with Beatrice and Benedick.  

Director Jane Page moved the setting from the Italian countryside to the Wild West in a context she likes to call “‘Gunsmoke’-meets-Shakespeare.” It’s her way of reconciling the macho rules that dictated behavior in Shakespeare’s comedy with her own emotional truths.

“In this play, the huge problem I had is how is it possible that a father would believe his friends rather than his daughter when it comes to the truth about her circumstance and her father? I started thinking that there has to be a culture of great male solidarity, and a place where women are generally sort of second class and not taken as seriously,” says Page.

Two engines drive this comedy: love and gossip. Page, who heads up the directing program at the University of California-Irvine, says she found the perfect setting for small-town intrigue in the romantic American frontier.

“Small towns, you know? I think in my experience, it’s sort of embedded. People know a lot about each other and not always through the front door,” says Page.

Performances are free, but reserved seating with wait service is available for $20.

There are no shows Monday evenings during the run, but the Shakespeare Festival sponsors free outdoor movie nights instead. “Anonymous,” about the controversy surrounding the true author of William Shakespeare’s plays, plays July 16. The second Shakespeare in the Park production will be “Measure for Measure,” staged by the festival’s high school conservatory program in August.

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