Director Craig George has made the ill-advised decision to set the action of the play in America in the days immediately following the end of World War II. Though George would surely argue the point, this time period is wholly inappropriate to the play's style and its worldview, not to mention its language. I can't imagine the rationale behind the update, since it didn't make things easier or less expensive for the company in terms of costuming; aside from everything else, they had to come up with all those military uniforms! Still, hampered as it is by this strange conceit, the production manages to be highly entertaining, thanks to some fine acting and inventive staging.
One of HSF's greatest assets is its performance venue in Theodore Roosevelt County Park in Montauk, L.I., a gorgeously sylvan setting of gently rolling hills and tranquil meadows, perfect for the al fresco presentation of Shakespeare. Though the central playing area here consists of a small stage flanked by bleachers that seat only a couple of hundred people, with room for a couple of hundred more on the lawn, George and company have ingeniously expanded the action to the farther reaches of the park at key points. And I do mean the farther reaches: To see a line of soldiers marching toward the stage from the top of a hill about an eighth of a mile away, or to see several of the cast members frolicking under a tree at an equal remove, is quite extraordinary. (Efforts have been made to paint on a similarly wide theatrical canvas in a few productions of the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Delacorte in Central Park, but the proximity of a lake limits what can be achieved there in this regard.)
Like just about any other summer theater offering, this Much Ado is thoroughly professional in some respects but truly amateurish in others. The lighting and sound are problematic, and one performer is embarrassingly unequal to his assignment: Michael Doyle, as Don John (here called simply "John"). However, the majority of the cast is dandy, with the Beatrice and Benedick of Alice M. Vienneau and J. Richey Nash worthy of special praise. If Vienneau ultimately lacks the core of smoldering sexuality that her character should possess, the portrayal is intelligent and well spoken. And if the gangly Nash (a former professional baseball player with the San Diego Padres organization!) isn't an ideal romantic hero, he finds every bit of humor in his famous role. When these two go at it, clear the decks!
Though somewhat miscast as the callow, hotheaded Claudio, David Paluck acquits himself respectably. Heather Hubbard is lovely and dignified as Hero, so ferociously (and falsely) branded as a wanton woman. And Dan Renkin is a sheer delight as Dogberry--far better in the part than Michael Keaton, who unsuccessfully tackled it in the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film version of Much Ado.
If the WW II setting of the piece was a mistake, it at least provides an excuse for some terrific musical interludes. David M. Brandenburg leads a crack eight-piece band and the scintillating featured vocalist Renee Howard through his own persuasive setting of Shakespeare's immortal "Sigh No More" lyrics, and through a couple of Duke Ellington tunes. Spiffy choreography by Thomas Mills adds to the fun. At the performance I attended, the audience ate up these numbers, no matter how anachronistic.
[The Hamptons Shakespeare Festival's Much Ado About Nothing continues its run at Theodore Roosevelt County Park through August 20, then moves to Agawam Park in Southampton for performances August 25-September 3. For information, phone 631-267-0105.]