Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing'

A rich interpretation of Shakespeare's comedy, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Center Valley, Pa.

Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing'

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Shakespeare's dueling couple Beatrice, played by Eleanor Handley, and Benedick, Rob Kahn, in "Much Ado About Nothing," at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in Center Valley. Photo by Lee A. Butz.

By Howard Shapiro

Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare’s comedy built on tricksters at every turn, is much ado about making good theater at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, where it opened Friday night in a greatly entertaining production.

James J. Christy’s version sweeps fluidly through the plot, one of Shakespeare’s simplest, which he spun by getting mileage out of a successful play he’d already created — The Taming of the Shrew. Acrimonious lovers do well on stage, he’d found, and set up Much Ado’s Beatrice and Benedick as bickering opposites who’ve known each other a long time and eventually  come to see that they’re not so opposite after all.

But only after they’re tricked into it, each being falsely told of the other’s secret passion. Everyone who knows them accepts their constant swap of insults as a normal pattern of behavior they’ve developed. But the two characters share something else: a stunningly empty loneliness. Shakespeare only alludes to it as Benedick constantly protests the concept of love and Beatrice constantly dismisses all of Benedick.

That loneliness percolates in the background of Christy’s production, giving unexpected heft to its all-for-fun nature. It comes across in body language as Eleanor Handley and Rob Kahn hurl their nasty arrows, and even in the way they look at or opposite one another. What you get from this — and from the rest of Christy’s production — is a rich Much Ado, with a cast of 22 in nuanced portrayals, a spot-on set by Thom Weaver that’s essentially a two-story wall defining the town of Messina, Sam Fleming’s swell costumes for a variety of events, and a very good time.

Handley (I’m not sure why she gives Beatrice a heavy British accent, the only one spoken in the production) and Kahn show a sweet vulnerability as the casing cracks in  their characters cracks, but they’re not the only lovers. Beatrice’s cousin and gal-pal, Hero (Emiley<NO1>cq<NO> Kiser), and Benedick’s comrade, Claudio (Zack Robidas), swoon for each other but are soon tricked out of love by the play’s villain, Don John (Tom Degnan).

It all happens under the watchful eyes — and sometimes with the deceitful help — of the mayor of Messina (a wizened Joe Vincent) and his sister (Jo Twiss, wonderful as an Old World mama you don’t want to mess with).

Another underlying theme of the play — loyalty — also comes through nicely in the web of machinations Shakespeare creates, as he normally does, by embellishing stories from other sources. Hmmmm, loyalty and loneliness — you can find them lurking in the shadows of a wholly different enterprise, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which many of the same cast members will be doing in repertory with Much Ado when that play opens at the festival, at De Sales University near Quakertown, on Friday.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,
Much Ado About Nothing: Through August 5 at the Pennyslvania Shakespeare Festival, on the DeSales University campus, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa., near Quakertown. Tickets: $25-$52. Information: 610-282-9455 or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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