Kent-Trumbull’s ‘Ado’ finds physical and verbal humor

CHAMPION — William Shakespeare’s work is known for its wordplay — the memorable quotes, the expressions we use centuries later without realizing their origin.

“Much Ado About Nothing,” one of his most popular comedies, certainly has that. But one thing that stands out about Kent State University at Trumbull Theater’s staging of the work is the opportunity for physical humor that director Eric Kildow finds in the script.

As Dogberry and Verges, Sierra Boyle and Jenna Cintavey are so in sync in their movements, the result is part ballet, part Two Stooges routine. It’s too bad they don’t show up until the second act. They enlivened every scene that featured them.

When Don Pedro (Joe Toto) and Claudio (Jacob Glosser) carry on a conversation while pretending not to know that Benedick (Peter Byrne) is listening to every word, Byrne’s actions gave the scene a comedic jolt as he darted back and forth and reacted broadly to what was being said.

In an interview last week, Kildow talked about how Shakespeare “wrote for the Joe Sixpack of his day,” and there are elements of his staging that emphasize the slapstick possibilities in the Bard’s plays.

Kildow also effectively switches the gender for several of the characters. I’m guessing this was borne out of necessity — the audition pool in college and community theater usually features more women than men — but the director and the performers make it work.

The costumes by Frances Harrison are more contemporary than 1600, when “Ado” debuted, but they work in establishing the military backgrounds of several characters and help in blurring the gender distinctions of the male roles played by women.

The multi-level set by Tony Kovacic provides the entryways and alcoves needed for the action while serving as a largely blank canvas upon which the story can play out.

The plot revolves around a couple of difficult romances. Claudio falls in love with Hero (Sarah Heavner) at first sight. Don Pedro agrees to help Claudio woo her, but Don Pedro’s brother (Camilla Keener) conspires to separate the couple.

Meanwhile, Don Pedro and Claudio work to bring together Benedick and Beatrice (Kim Akins), two sharp-tongued personalities who never would admit their affection for one another without a little help from outside forces.

Kildow has to juggle a cast of actors with far different experience levels. Byrne is a Shakespeare scholar who’s appeared in many productions and Akins manages the Mahoning Valley Players, which stages free performances of Shakespeare plays every summer at Mill Creek Park. Others are doing their first Shakespeare play. The director generally makes those different part mesh together, but there was a noticeable unevenness to Sunday’s matinee performance.

Byrne and Akins deftly banter and bicker with one another in the first act, but they didn’t have the same spark at all times in the second act. In general, there were times the energy level seemed to ebb, but then the production would find its rhythm in the next scene.