We’re all familiar with hyphenate artists such as writer-director or actor-producer, but “Much Ado About Nothing” is the first time I’ve seen an actor-director-bouncer in action.
The artist in question is Joseph Papke. He plays Benedick in “Much Ado,” is the artistic director of Classical Actors Ensemble (and director of a noirish “Arden of Faversham,” running in repertory with “Much Ado”) and had to boot out a trio of noisy patrons during the first act of “Much Ado” Sunday — while in character and without missing a beat. Even without the unruliness, what CAE is doing is wildly ambitious: two Elizabethan plays, performed on adjoining sets (a comedy in color and a tragedy in black and white), featuring a couple dozen actors who need to be able to double as musicians and, if the need arises, 86 somebody.
Set in 1940s Hawaii, this “Much Ado” has an appealing looseness that, perhaps owing to CAE’s huge ambitions, sometimes veers into sloppiness. A couple actors didn’t yet have a handle on their characters (or their lines) at the second performance, and the whole thing hadn’t quite jelled. But what works, works well.
This “Much Ado” recognizes that what is often perceived as a romantic comedy about will-they-or-won’t-theys Beatrice (Kaija Pellinen) and Benedick is really about the goofballs around them, who pull pranks and hatch schemes that will inevitably lead to love between the bickerers (“they never meet, but there’s a skirmish of wit between them”). As staged by Tom Conry, the scenes in which the lovers “accidentally” overhear scenes that their friends have staged for their benefit are hilarious, especially one in which Hero (Samantha Fairchild) chats with pal Ursula (Taelyn Gore) and waters some geraniums, deliberately missing the flowerpots so that water and clods of dirt rain down on Beatrice below.
Even the band seems to be out to get the lovers, preceding the show with snappy renditions of Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” At intermission, with lies told about lovers fresh in our minds, the band busts out “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a jazz arrangement of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The music amplifies the show’s playful spirit and helps make its midcentury setting stick, as does Samantha V. Papke, channeling ’40s sidekicks such as Thelma Ritter with a hoydenish performance as Hero’s fast-talking pal Margaret.
As the company settles into the runs of “Arden” and “Much Ado,” I’m guessing they’ll find more and more connections between the two — with, for instance, one actor playing landowners in both plays and another playing a cop in one and a murderer in the other. If you go, just be sure you sit in the correct half of the theater: One half will get you an Elizabethan classic, but the other half will offer only an empty stage.
Much Ado About Nothing
Who: By William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Conry.
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri., 2 p.m. Sat. Ends Sept. 22.
Where: Lab Theater, 700 N. 1st St., Mpls.
Tickets: $18-$42, classicalactorsensemble.org.