Ah, Genesius Guild. By the time the company's Saturday-night production of Much Ado About Nothing commenced, the quality of the show barely mattered, because I was already thoroughly amused by the audience.

At about five minutes before curtain, the production's CD accompaniment began to play - softly, but obviously in error. It was quickly turned off, but that didn't stop a gentleman in the crowd from exclaiming, "Can you turn it up, please?" generating hearty laughs from those around him. Within moments, the CD accidentally started again, but far louder this time. This prompted a woman to shout, "We're awake now!" to the delight of the audience, and my heart immediately went out to Much Ado's technicians and actors; God, I thought, this is going to be like performing Shakespeare in a karaoke bar.

"Polish" and "propriety" are not words generally associated with the Genesius Guild experience. From the charmingly klutzy, stalling-for-time-while-we-pass-out-information-cards pre-show announcements (my favorite: "There will be an intermission ... " - pause - " ... about halfway through the play ... ") to the boisterousness of the tykes arriving late with their parents (a toddler who wound up sitting behind me must have recently discovered coughing as an entertaining pastime), no one could ever mistake Lincoln Park for New York's Central Park. But the insouciant nature of the show's intro proved perfectly fitting. This lighthearted production of Much Ado is breezy and carefree, and although a few performers seem ill-equipped to handle the Bard's language, several come through with truly first-rate work.

Best of the lot is Wilder Anderson, who is blessed with movie-star handsomeness and terrific timing, and who continually ups the show's energy level. His verbal duels with Beatrice might be more snippy than satisfying - Lauren Kapolnek gives her role a good shot, but is probably a few years away from pulling off the comic effects she's aiming for - yet Anderson and Matt Moody, as Don Pedro, have great rapport, and Anderson makes Benedick's self-infatuation incredibly charming.

Charm, in fact, is what the show's finest performers have in spades. Bob Hanske, as Dogberry, makes public drunkenness seem a most entertaining character trait; as Leonato, Michael Carron's jovial gruffness suggests what Mike Ditka might have done with the role; and Jill Sullivan-Bennin, as Balthasar, reveals such an intoxicating light soprano - she sings two a cappella numbers beautifully - that you wish her character showed up far more often. (Sullivan-Bennin made me long for a musical version of Much Ado.) And then there's Mac Parker, whose performance as Claudio is a fascinating dichotomy: His body language is indifferent and his cue pickups are late, but when Parker speaks, he does so with more passion and fervor than anyone on stage. (His "O, what men dare do!" speech is the purest Shakespeare you'll hear all night.) If Parker tightens up his cues and finds a physicality to match his vocal delivery, he might be unstoppable.

Yet director Jeff Coussens is so clever in his use of minimal set-pieces, and adds so many delightful comic bits to the production, that even the lesser performers wind up looking good; his handling of The Watch, who respond to Dogberry's slurrings with "Sir, yes sir!" sincerity, is especially marvelous. By the end of Genesius Guild's enjoyable Much Ado About Nothing, the evening's early awkwardness seemed a distant memory, proof that diverting theatre, too, can occasionally soothe a savage beast.

Performances of Much Ado About Nothing will be held at 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, July 23 and 24. For more information, visit (http://www.genesius.org).

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