Company member JT Nagle pays his banjo at Muse of Fire’s production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”Photo from Muse of Fire

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Love is in the air. In this energetic, well acted and frequently hilarious rendition of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” longtime verbal antagonists Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into falling in love, while their friends Claudio and Hero learn how flimsy love at first sight can be, and all is made well by a group of bumbling officers of the law. Director Emily Berezowsky gives fresh life to the old story, whose themes of friendship, love, desire, and loyalty are as perennial as fall migrations and spring mating.   

Now in its ninth year, Muse of Fire is “dedicated to bringing great plays to the widest possible local audience,” as their playbill says, by producing high quality professional productions free to the public, in an outdoor setting.

And what a lovely setting: two majestic trees in the center of Ingraham Park create a natural roof for the stage, leaving plenty of room for lawn chairs and blankets. When I attended, a strong breeze occasionally competed with the actors’ voices, but more often formed a natural bassline for the play’s music. The two-hour running time made for a brisk pace, with humor quickly giving way to romance, and hilarity entering as soon as tragedy exited.

Beatrice is the most mocking of Shakespeare’s many sharp-tongued heroines, famous for her takedowns of men and courtship. “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man say he loves me,” she quips. Chelsea Rolfes gives Beatrice a sharp edge of real hostility in her “merry war” with the equally reluctant hero Benedick, whom she regularly bests in their battles of wit. As Benedick, the soldier who claims to prefer male camaraderie to flirtation, James Dolbeare conveys the character’s charm and misogynistic bluster, milking every laugh out of his comic soliloquies.

Both actors shift into a deeper emotional register as the circumstances become serious. Christian Aldridge, who serves as house manager and understudy, remarks, “Watching them turn from spitefully playful burned ex-lovers into incredibly vulnerable and honest people in private is fascinating.”

In Claudio (Bernhard Verhoeven), Shakespeare exposes the failings of the conventional romantic lead, whose shallow attraction for lovely Hero (Alexis Randolph) turns into a childish jealousy not once but twice in the space of a week, and leads him to an act of almost unforgivable cruelty. Ms. Randolph gives Hero, who can seem merely a victim, a contemporary flair with her mischievous smile and considerable spunk.

As “Much Ado”’s flawed male authority figures Don Pedro and Hero’s father Leonato, Geoff Zimmerman and Joe Page are by turns affectionate, playful, and appalling in their willingness to destroy Hero’s reputation because they believe she has betrayed them.

The darker aspects of the play are balanced by the antics of the bumbling constable Dogberry (Miriam Reuter, who delivers consistent laughs with the able support of Alexis Randolph, Elizabeth Rentfro and Kate Nawrocki – also comically effective in double roles as Hero’s wisecracking gentlewomen). Audiences of Shakespeare’s day found the malapropisms of rustic folk hilarious, as when Dogberry whispers “comparisons are odorous.” While this sort of joke may go right over the heads of today’s audiences, few will have trouble laughing when Dogberry gets called an ass by a crime suspect, and spends the rest of the play wishing that someone had recorded the fact: “Oh that I had been writ down an ass.” Ironically, Dogberry’s absurd instructions to his amateur watchmen – anyone who sees a thief should just let him “steal away,” i.e., leave things alone – might have been well taken by the gossiping, backstabbing aristocrats who create much ado out of, well, nothing.

Performances are Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m. through July 30 in Ingraham Park, behind the Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave. Viewers are advised to bring their own seating.