MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Waller, with Hume Baugh, Tracey Ferencz, Sharmila Dey, Jeff Gruich, Richard Alan Campbell, Helen Farmer, Amanda Parsons, Michelle Polak, Terry Wells and Andrew Moodie. Presented by Shakespeare in the Rough in Withrow Park (south of Danforth, between Logan and Carlaw). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, July 31), opens Saturday (August 2) and runs to September 1, Wednesday-Saturday 7 pm, matinees Sundays, August 4 and September 1 at 2 pm. Pwyc ($10 sugg). 416-536-0916. Rating: NNNNN
Here's some irony. She's been in the business for 18 years and talented actor Tracey Ferencz is just now doing her first Shakespeare. "Ten years at the Shaw Festival gave me classics to work on, but no Shakespeare," explains the actor over coffee - decaffeinated - at a Danforth bistro. "And then I worked on new plays for several years out in Calgary and here in Toronto, so I've just not had the chance."
Now she gets to play Beatrice, half of the bickering duo in Shakespeare in the Rough's staging of the comedy Much Ado About Nothing. Between them, she and Hume Baugh (as Benedick) share some of the wittiest dialogue in the Bard's canon, much of it directed disparagingly at each other until they finally admit their love.
What distinguishes SITR from other park Shakespeares - and it's one of the most delightful aspects of work by the company, which turns 10 this year - is the use they make of the space around and behind the main performing area, a hollow in which two huge trees create a natural proscenium arch.
"The audience gets to watch a kind of moving painting with scenes happening behind scenes," says Ferencz. "Shakespeare's text is played out downstage, close to the audience, but other episodes mentioned in the text occur simultaneously up on a hill.
"The script comes alive in a new way when you see the characters' lives offstage. The canvas we're using is so wide - in fact, there are no boundaries to the set, as long as the audience can see the action - that we're forced to keep our energy vivid all the time."
But she's also been aware from day one of other reasons to focus her work. This is her first outdoor production, and a park, with its variety of dogs, babies and the occasional overhead plane, creates a huge vocal challenge.
Director Michael Waller has set the piece on the French Riviera in the late 40s, when troops have returned home from a successful war and the economy's turned around.
"It has," notes the actor, "something of the wealth and decadence of the Hitchcock film To Catch A Thief."
Whatever the setting, Beatrice stands out as one of Shakespeare's strong, determined female characters. Despite the figure's wit and outspoken frankness, Ferencz sees in her a note of sadness.
"Beatrice is an orphan and has been abandoned as a child. There's a clue in the text that she's previously been involved with Benedick and he's broken her heart, so she feels abandoned and wary when they meet again at the start of the play.
"Her idea of a relationship isn't the traditional hearts and flowers. She requires a mate who's both physically and intellectually attractive. They're not typical romantic figures, and what they share is a mature love."
Ferencz caught audiences' eyes last year in a revival of the wordless production The Overcoat. She played Peter Anderson's amorous landlady and used physical work to paint the character in primary colours of smugness and seduction. This time the words matter. Though she's had a lot of experience with text - she has become a Shaw specialist - she's never had to wrestle with Shakespeare's poetry.
"In the case of Much Ado, the text is largely prose, unlike many of Shakespeare's other works. And as in a Shaw play, I have to deal with long sentences and keep the thought going to the end.
"So I know what kind of challenge the play is to speak and make realistic for an audience."