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
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

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, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.

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 www.pashakespeare.org.

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