Shakespeare in the Gardens outdoor production runs through May 5

Of all the battling lovers we have seen on stage, there are probably no two people better suited for each other than Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

They are both strong-willed people who who refuse to acknowledge their true feelings, but we can see right through their flowery, yet biting comments about one another and love itself.

Late in the first act of the lively FSU/Asolo Conservatory production, DeAnna Wright storms onto the outdoor stage at Selby Gardens looking angry. Only Benedick, played by an energetic and agile Dylan Crow, could look at her stern expression and detect something more. “I do see some marks of love on her,” he confesses to the audience.

Such are the ways of love in this comedy, which takes a while to come into focus in Jonathan Epstein's staging for the Conservatory’s second season of Shakespeare in the Gardens, which is presented behind the Christy Payne Mansion on the Selby grounds.

Like last year’s magical production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the cast sometimes has to strain to be heard over the roar of motorcycles and trucks racing by on busy U.S. 41,  just on the other side of some beautifully lit trees. That’s particularly an issue for Wright, who conveys Beatrice’s spunky and determined spirit, but does it while shouting in ways that limit her vocal variety. Her delivery always sounds the same.

Epstein’s in-the-round staging assures the actors don’t have their backs to any section of the audience for long. He makes good use of the space and provides ample opportunity for cast members to have fun.

Epstein also plays with gender, switching the character of Don Pedro to a woman named Petra, which provides some subtle differences in the storytelling, and allows for extra gender-bending with women dressed as men and men as women during a masquerade ball, where Petra tries to help her friend and companion Claudio win the love of Hero, a governor's daughter. 

It’s also a fine showcase for the second-year students, especially Crow, whose Benedick seems almost effortless. He’s exceedingly playful as he “hides” from the friends and relatives trying to trick him into admitting his feelings for Beatrice. In one funny scene, he unsuccessfully tries to disguise himself by hopping like a frog, ducking under and cautiously moving a stone bench and drenching himself in the bubbling fountain that is the only other piece of stage decoration.

In many productions, the romance of Benedick and Beatrice usually carries the show, but in this version, the story of Claudio and Hero and the deception that threatens their relationship carries almost equal weight. That is due to the besotted performances of Scott Shoemaker as Claudio and Katie Sah as Hero, whose love is tormented by Petra’s brother, Don John, played with moustache-twirling villainy by Matt Kresch. John is an outcast working to wreak havoc on the happiness of others and his sister, Petra, played with grace by Olivia Osol.

Lawrence James as Hero’s father, Leonato, and Andrew Hardaway as Friar Antonio, bring strength to their characters. Erik Meixelpserger creates some fun as the offbeat sheriff, Dogberry, who leads a ragtag group of deputies trying to set things straight when the marriage plans threaten to go awry.

The cast members are beautifully and effectively costumed by Sofia Gonzalez, who gives the production a sort of flair that covers a range of periods, while Chris McVicker’s lighting casts a glow on the trees and makes sure we can see everything as night falls.

If you attend, you might consider renting a cushion (for $3) to soften the folding white chairs provided for patrons, and to bring a jacket or sweater, because the evenings can still be surprisingly cool along the Sarasota bayfront.