Shakespeare in Round Rock: Free family fun for a summer night

‘Tis the season for theater under the stars, and Penfold Theatre continues its tradition of bringing outdoor productions to Round Rock with “Much Ado About Nothing,” playing for free through June 23 at the Round Rock Amphitheater.

Contributed by Kimberley Mead

At first blush, a bit of Shakespeare might not seem to be the most natural fit for Penfold’s outdoor summer production, which tends to play to more of a family audience than Austin Shakespeare’s own annual production in Zilker Park. Director Ryan Crowder, however, has created a smart, slimmed-down adaptation of the text. This leaner, meaner play cuts down on anything but the main plotline, following two pairs of lovers as they fall in and out of love (and sometimes both at once).

Set and lighting designer Chris Conard has created an inventive playing space, re-creating the porch and front yard of a rural Texas farmhouse in the late 1800s. The text holds up remarkably well to such a setting, working in concert with Conard’s set, Jennifer Davis’ simple, evocative costumes and sound designer Eliot Fisher’s bed of “A Prairie Home Companion”-esque fiddle music. This conceit also allows for several fun moments of live music and line dancing.

What such production choices ultimately achieve is to streamline the story, eliminating many side characters, gender-swapping a few others and casting two performers (Suzanne Balling and Taylor Flanagan) in multiple roles, so as to focus on the lovers’ storylines. Indeed, the villainous Don John, played by Balling with a delightful Southern drawl, is reduced to the bare essential stereotypes of a black-hatted villain who may or may not live in the outhouse, while Flanagan is called upon to ebulliently switch between three separate roles within one scene.

While Balling and Flanagan get to vacillate between a variety of characters, both serious and silly, the rest of the cast focus on more nuanced portrayals of the two pairs of lovers. As the young, engaged couple Hero and Claudio, Emily Christine Smith and Nathan Daniel Ford portray a sense of wistful naivete that nicely contrasts to the more cynical, knowing jibes of Jennifer Jennings and Nathan Jerkins as Beatrice and Benedick. These four have their moments of humor, too, but their laughs come more from the sarcasm and playfulness of Shakespeare’s words (though both Jennings and Jerkins have a few moments of broad physical comedy), and it is to the actors’ credit that they are able to make that language so nimble and active.

Penfold’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is, in short, a Shakespearean comedy that trims the textual fat while adding plenty of bells and whistles in order to create a light piece of summer fare that is suitable for the entire family.

‘MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING’
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through June 23
Where: Round Rock Amphitheater, 301 W. Bagdad Ave., Round Rock
Cost: Free
Information: penfoldtheatre.org

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