MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, First Folio Shakespeare Festival, at the Peabody Estate at Mayslake. This play is hard. If Beatrice and Benedick take over, the plot gets lost. If they don't, its grim goings-on make the work a comedy only by definition: it ends in marriage.
First Folio Shakespeare Festival gets the balance right by combining a good concept with superior acting. Director Alison C. Vesely sets the play in the American southwest after the Civil War, a surprising yet illuminating choice. The prince feuding with his bastard brother (Jim Johnson and James Houton) are recast as a Union colonel and his ex-Confederate brother. The exceptional Paul Slade Smith as Dogberry draws on generations of comic sheriffs--who doubtless drew on Dogberry. The period makes for wonderful music: the soldiers enter singing "Marching Through Georgia," and resident composer Michael Keefe brilliantly resets a Shakespeare song to "Shenandoah." Sean Grennan was born to play Benedick, taking pratfalls yet somehow maintaining his dignity, and Mary Ernster's easy swagger as Beatrice suggests Annie Oakley getting a man with the gun of her wit. This well-matched comic pair powers the play without overpowering it.
The only problem is the choice of villains. Despite a PC director's note about exploring multicultural tensions, making the villains Mexican seems a route to easy laughs at people with funny accents and dark skin, not to mention a cheap shot at "hot-blooded" Latinas. Rene Ruelas as Conrade and Aaron Jose Muñoz as Borachio do the best they can given the director's Frito Bandito prejudices; their ultimate repentance goes beyond caricature to real remorse. --Kelly Kleiman