By JAMES D WATTS JR
CUTLINES -Spending an Oklahoma summer evening sitting outside and observing a play being performed about a city block away might sound like a rather unusual way to occupy one's time.
However, thanks to a welcome and relatively constant cool breeze, access to some fine food vendors, and an enthusiastic and vigorous cast, Tulsa Shakespeare in the Park's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" proved to be enjoyable at its Tuesday opening night at the Guthrie Green park.
This is the third year - and the third location - that this company has presented a free, open-air performance. In 2010, it staged "Romeo and Juliet" in downtown's Centennial Green; the next year, "As You Like It" was performed at Centennial Park on Peoria Avenue under the name Shakedown in T-Town.
It's also the first time the company has performed on something close to an actual stage, complete with lights and sound (though the Guthrie Green's technical specifications are geared more toward amplified music than the spoken word).
And it's easily the group's most ambitious show, presented in partnership with the University of Tulsa and the Tulsa PAC Trust's SummerStage Tulsa festival.
Director Carolyn Gillespie has set the action of this comedy during World War II, and the production is punctuated with moments of song and dance that employ jazz and pop standards and swing dance moves choreographed by Jessica Vokoun.
And the relatively bare stage is augmented by projections and animations that feature a number of Tulsa landmarks, such as the Philbrook grounds, a 1940s Tulsa street scene, even a locomotive steaming into the station.
Granted, the first act Tuesday night was plagued with sonic difficulties: wireless microphones that seemed determined to allow only select words spoken by certain actors to be heard, the occasional squawl of feedback, the ambient roar of that cooling breeze through the stage, a few harmonies that went cringe- inducingly awry.
A good portion of these problems were solved by the start of the second act, so even those on the far edge of the Guthrie Green could appreciate the workings out of two romances - the verbally fractious Beatrice (Jenny Guy) and Benedick (Steven Marzolf), and the lovestruck youngsters Hero (Tabitha Littlefield) and Claudio (Justin Walker).
Performing in a park means the actors and the story they tell have to fill the park, which was one reason I staked out a place about as far from the stage as one could get (that, and the fact that it was in the shade).
Director Carolyn Gillespie has done an excellent job of guiding her actors in performances that perhaps are best described as "spacious" - broadly sketched and carefully enunciated so that little is lost, regardless of where one was sitting.
And this openness and forcefulness of performing worked - a bit paradoxically - to create a sense of intimacy. People in the crowd didn't just applaud as Marzolf and Guy soliloquized about their characters' disdain for, then embrace of, married life - they cheered. And their verbal sparring throughout the evening was appealingly sharp.
Walker was an earnest Claudio, whether mooning in love or raging at a supposed betrayal, and Littlefield was very good as Hero, all innocence and girlish honesty.
Sean Rooney's microphone kept interrupting his performance as Dogberry in the first act, giving the character's stream of non sequiturs an even more surreal air. He was much better understood, and quite funny, in the second act. Tony Schneider, as the villainous Don John, was almost muted - his lines were overpowered by everyone around him, such as Carl Collins as his primary henchman, Borachio.
Machele Miller Dill played Leonata - the patriarchal figures of the original are women here, in a nod to the "home front" - as well as serving as the show's musical director. Bob Hart seemed to be a stalwart Don Pedro, but many of his lines were consumed by electronic gremlins.
"Much Ado About Nothing" continues with performances at 8:30 p.m. each evening through Sunday. A pre-show, featuring performances by the Portico Dans Theatre and songs by cast members, starts at 7:30 p.m. And while this is, as are all Guthrie Green events, free and open to the public, that is not a reflection on the quality of what Tulsa Shakespeare in the Park is presenting. This is a show that would be worth paying good money to see.
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Originally published by JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer.
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