By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
“To suffer love.” This unusual line appears three times in quick order toward the end of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s fresh, exuberant production illuminates the Bard’s theme with a fullness and flourish.
Much of Much Ado centers on the unwilling affection building between Beatrice (Eleni Delopoulos) and Benedick (Chance Dean), a proud maid and professed bachelor trading jaded barbs about how they will never marry, especially not each other.
But this comedic confection conceals a bitter core in the budding romance between Claudio (Isaiah Ellis) and Hero (Lauren Sowa). While early endearment leaves each speechless, these tender, though tenuous first pangs give way to hidden jealousy that scant evidence easily inflames.
Domenick Scudera’s brilliant direction elucidates the duality between earnestness and fear, tenderness and the urge for self preservation. He whittles Shakespeare’s five-act text to two, cleaved for maximum impact between the lighthearted and darker elements of the text.
Delopoulos and Dean’s superb deadpan and machine gun delivery add ample effervescence, which the rest of the cast supports with clever performances of dance, song, slapstick and nuanced characterization (especially Eric Fan Wie’s Keystone Cop Dogberry).
The otherwise young cast initially causes concern; Shakespeare’s soldiers (redeployed to World War II in Brian Strachan’s smart costumes) have returned from war, and many of these look more prettified for a parlor than bruised by battle. But their deceptive innocence works to Scudera’s advantage, showing barbarity in inexperience tempered by the notion that easy forgiveness is something only afforded to the young or those young in affection.
Scudera starts and ends his staging with song, called for in the text, a bit awkward in this presentation. But one minor mishap cannot eclipse this production’s thorough reminder that at any stage of love, the hard gravel of suffering yields perennial blooms of joy.
Much Ado About Nothing. Presented through May 19 by the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, 2111 Sansom St. Tickets: $25 to $35. Information: 215-496-9722 or phillyshakespeare.org