Members of the cast in the Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Blue.
Members of the cast in the Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by David Blue.

In what feels like a never-ending quest to reinvent Shakespeare, this season’s opener at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival transports us to a 1959 Italian sound stage. But even as the shift in time and place in this Much Ado About Nothing may feel like a gimmick, it makes sense.

This is especially true as the sexism of the original period is juxtaposed against similar sexist attitudes of the 1950s.  Add a few changes to the text to allow for moving the story from battleground to sound stage, some stunning staging including delightful moments of choreography from Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, and it all works without seeming forced.

Re-imagined by director John Murphy, the first thing you will notice are the black and white film tones of Pam Johnson’s set design. Christine Reimer’s gorgeous costumes also mirror the pre-Technicolor era, gradually giving way to pops of colour as the various romantic pairings become reality.

But while all manner of creative reinvention can help to reinvigorate a familiar story, it takes a cast to ultimately bring it to life. And this cast largely delivers.

Amber Lewis is especially good here as Beatrice. Deftly steering away from stereotype, Lewis manages to convince, despite her protestations, she too can find love. Paired with Kevin MacDonald as a charmingly handsome Benedick, the two are convincing as the unlikely couple. Inside the play’s many darker moments, the duo also provides a welcome respite from the sometimes-ridiculous comedy.

Amber Lewis and Kevin MacDonald as Beatrice and Benedick. Photo by David Blue.
Amber Lewis and Kevin MacDonald as Beatrice and Benedick. Photo by David Blue.

In fact, it is within the broad comedy where this production sometimes falters. While one can appreciate the odd-ball characters created by Chris Cochrane and Ashley O’Connell in the roles of the studio guards, their over-the-top performances felt out-of-place. O’Connell’s accent and frantic pace made him largely unintelligible. Cochrane manages to redeem though with a genuine performance as Friar Francis.

Recent Studio 58 grad Julien Galipeau moves perfectly through his initial ecstasy in finding his beloved Hero, his accusations of infidelity, and the devastation in realizing his error. In a production where emotional connection sometimes waned behind concept and comedy excesses, one only needed to look to Galipeau for the heart.

While Galipeau finds the pulse, Andrew Wheeler finds his own balance of joy and anguish as Hero’s father. Reminding us there are no small roles, Kaitlin Williams makes the most of a very cheeky Margaret.

Others in the cast don’t fare as well. As the falsely accused Hero, Parmiss Sehat gives us great displays of emotion, but without the necessary depth, and Laara Sadiq seems as if she has arrived from a Disney film with a caricature of the jealous Dona Johnna.

An inventive staging of a familiar story, even while this production of Much Ado About Nothing doesn’t quite reach la dolce vita status, it is filled with (apologies to our Italian readers) molti momenti memorabili.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare. Directed by John Murphy. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare production. On stage at the BMO Mainstage tent in Vancouver’s Vanier Park until September 23. Visit http://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.