It’s our annual Boston theatrical ritual– FREE Shakespeare on the Common presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, and this summer’s production is just what we needed after a year of too much of everything and always something– so what better time for “Much Ado About Nothing”! Just sit back under the stars with a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s and savor this joyous, cool update on Shakespeare’s endearing comedy, a rollicking roundelay of love, lust, betrayal, revenge, life, death and second chances — I loved it!
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian immediately sets this production in motion on a classic, graceful, beautifully lit (Eric Southern, Maximo Grano De Oro) set, overlayed with the style and spirit of the more recent past. The bombastic, big-haired 80’s have given way to grungy 90’s tulle and torn fishnets (Kathleen Doyle, Miranda Guirleo) with a pinch of hilarious deadpan attitude and a dollop of 90’s hip hop, running man, and electric line dancing (Levi Philip Marsman). Add to this, a diversified gambol across the gender/sexual identity spectrum: Beatrice and Benedick and Borachio are all played by women, a fresh extension of the fluid identity tropes Shakespeare embeds in his comedies, which were originally conflated in The Bard’s day when male actors played female parts, then–per the dictates of plot– cross dressed to disguise their identities!
But there’s no escaping the binary in Shakespeare, which brings me to the two couples at the heart of the action. The proud Beatrice (Rachael Warren) and Benedick (Tia James) detest each other, and verbally spar in an endless attempt to one-up and outwit each other. The handsome soldier Claudio (Eric Robles) returns home fresh from war and instantly falls for the beautiful, innocent Hero (Rebecca-Anne Whittaker) and immediately plan to wed!
Not so fast… Beatrice and Benedick are tricked into believing that each is secretly in love with the other, which soon whips them into a frenzy of false starts and misread cues. Simultaneously, Claudio and Hero are caught in a web of jealousy and revenge by Don Pedro’s (Michael Underhill) bastard brother Don John (Gunnar Manchester), who tricks Claudio into believing Hero has betrayed him on the eve of their nuptials. Never fear–it’s a comedy! The quartet eventually come to their senses and it’s love and marriage all around–but not before an ersatz funeral ensues! Love and death were never closer.
Warren tries a tad too hard as Beatrice, her over broad delivery veering toward smuggery. But James tempers Benedick’s swagger and bravado with a whiff of vulnerability which makes plausible what happens next. Robles wears his fiery heart on his sleeve as the passionate Claudio, and Whittaker’s Hero is sweetly spunky, while patient enough to forgive her impulsive lover’s lack of trust.
And I’ve never seen a better “Dogberry,” the moronic, malaprop-prone constable who unwittingly uncovers the key to the plot against Claudio and Hero’s wedding. Debra Wise kills it! Shakespeare’s comic characters often misfire but Wise is the perfect combo of bone-headed and hellbent. I laughed out loud.
The production is buoyant and free-wheeling in tone, direction, movement and music which ranges from an inspired “Hey nonny nonny” to the jubilant “Now That We Found Love”!! Yes, that’s the anthem which carried me out into the night….“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING” presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company FREE on Boston Common through August 7!