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Shakespeare in capitol park

Much Ado About Nothing

Lauren Lutz Verges and John Serembe as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo courtesy Animal Fire Theatre

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Leaving Animal Fire Theatre's outdoor production of Much Ado About Nothing, my wife said she thought it might be the best Animal Fire show yet. In the moment, I tended to agree; but then I remembered their Hamlet from five years past and realized the obvious: you can't compare these two shows, which are the epitome of the opposing masks symbols of theater. The latter is generally considered the greatest play ever, and in the afterglow of watching Animal Fire's Much Ado, I am inclined to say it is, if not the funniest ever, as least Shakespeare's funniest and most accessible comedy.

I can't imagine any other theater company doing it better - not even Oregon's Shakespeare Festival, not even Broadway.

Animal Fire does Shakespeare outdoors almost every summer, and it is always free (donations gratefully accepted). This summer's production of Much Ado takes place at the water garden on the East Capitol Campus. Park near the visitor center and cross over Capitol Way South. It's near the Korean War Memorial. There are stone steps for seating, and audiences are invited to bring folding chairs and/or blankets or cushions.

The setting is lovely, with a minimalist set comprised of a bit of purple and silver drapery and a few ladders over the no-longer-active water garden.

The story has been updated to Hollywood in the Roaring Twenties. Hero (Amanda Garcia) and Claudio (Ryan Holmberg) are madly in love and engaged to be married, while Beatrice (Rachel Fitzgerald) and Benedick (Brian Hatcher) are the world's most unlikely couple, which means - as everybody knows - they're going to end up in love. They certainly are not lovesick teenagers in the mold of Romeo and Juliet; they have each lived long enough to be wise, sarcastic and disdainful of love and marriage - especially Benedick, and what man could be man enough for Beatrice?

But there are plots afoot to break up Hero and Claudio and bring together Beatrice and Benedick. To describe these plots would be to add confusion. Suffice it to say one plot fails miserably and comically while the other succeeds marvelously, and all's well that ends well.

The cast is simply wonderful. Hatcher, in what may very well be his best role to date, and Fitzgerald are the perfect wisecracking couple. Simply seeing Hatcher in his 1920's-style red-striped swimsuit is reason enough to see the show. Holmberg is terrific and very funny, and Garcia is beautifully coy and sensible as the most down-to-earth character in this madcap play; Mark Peterson slinks and sneaks like a first-class comic villain; and John Serembe is hilarious as Constable Dogberry played as a comic Wild West sheriff who rides in on a hobby horse. Throughout, there is sneaking in the style of the worst of the cops-and-robbers movies of the time. Kudos to director Jeremy Thompson or whoever came up with the idea of setting it in Hollywood in the '20s.

It is a fast-moving play presented without intermission, and it is surprisingly easy to hear despite a lot of open space between the actors and the audience.

The July 22 performance will be a benefit for the Powerful With Love Fund. All donations on that night will support the fund established at The Community Foundation of South Puget Sound to honor and sustain the work and legacy of Steve Macuk, who died of brain cancer in 2014.

Much Ado About Nothing, 7 p.m., Friday-Sunday, through July 23, The Water Garden on the East Capitol Campus, Olympia, free

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