Masquerades, mistrust, and “a kind of merry war” define love in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, widely regarded as Shakespeare’s best romantic comedy. The Mechanical Theater’s summer production reaffirms that opinion, by capturing the universal delights, pains, and battles that characterize amorous relationships, as couples Claudio and Hero, Benedick and Beatrice find each other, feel the effects of gossip, false accusations, and interference from their family, friends, and foes, then come, at last, to trust in their perfect match and to enjoy happiness together in a jubilant joint wedding.
Set by The Bard at the home of Leonato, Hero’s father and the governor of 16th-century Messina, Mechanical relocates the play to our own period and dresses its cast in current clothing and authentic Venetian masks. The company also retains the wit and eloquence of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan prose, and performs it in the garden of Society Hill’s eighteenth-century Powel House (or inside in the ballroom in case of rain)—a rich historic setting that adds to the production’s charm and evokes the ruler’s noble estate. Those cross-temporal choices underscore the story’s relevance for all times and for everyone who has experienced the giddiness and pangs of romance, or the jealousy and doubts that could sabotage true love.
Director Josh Hitchens streamlines the play to a rapid-fire 85 minutes with no intermission, eliminating Shakespeare’s songs and smartly conflating some of the minor characters (Margaret, Borachio, Conrad, and Antonio) with others. His fine ensemble maintains a fast and fluid delivery that synthesizes the quick unfolding of the plot with the speed of our post-modern era and current speech patterns, so that the language is believably conversational to a 21st-century audience. Passages of direct-address monologues, in which the actors make extensive eye contact with the viewer, further enhance the immediacy and emotional involvement between them.
Karina Balfour and Geremy Webne-Berhman deliver the hilariously combative interplay between the strong and feisty Beatrice and the willfully confirmed bachelor Benedick, while the adorable Meg Rumsey-Lasersohn and Gil Johnson bring innocence and pathos to Hero and Claudio, as the younger couple becomes overwhelmed by a range of intense first-time emotions. Together they portray the many faces and feelings of love. Providing impressive support for the four leads are the commanding John Schultz as the aristocratic Don Pedro (Prince of Aragon, military leader to soldiers Benedick and Claudio, and longtime friend of the governor) and the impactful Kevin Rodden as Balthasar (who here drives the plot’s deceptions with mastery) and Friar Francis (who officiates the weddings).
Hitchens employs cross-gender casting for the traditionally male roles of Leonato (now called Leonata and portrayed by Hilary Asare) and Don John (Loretta Vasile)–the duplicitous and envious sibling played with the deliberate cool of a spy and the pretension of a social climber, replete with dark glasses and a cigarette holder–to explore the dynamics of mother-daughter and sister-brother relationships. The gender-bending also serves to update the opportunities women have in our culture to be political leaders and heads of household, while still being doubted in their credibility (Leonata’s belief in her wronged daughter) and thwarted in their desires and ambitions (resulting in the illegitimate Don John’s destructive scheming and melancholy disposition). Rounding out the likeable cast is Jessica Snow as Ursula, one of Hero’s lusty women-in-waiting.
While Hitchens’ emphasis is on the comedy, with humorous sequences of drinking, tussles, eavesdropping, and buffoonery (Asare and Schultz provide clownish comic relief as constable Dogberry and his deputy Verges, in contrast with their more serious roles as Leonata and Don Pedro), he does not neglect the salient point that there’s often a thin line between comedy and tragedy, and that what ends well here could just as easily have turned deadly. But it doesn’t, and there are even some sweet surprises inserted into Mechanical’s happy ending! [Powel House, 244 South 3rd Street] August 20-30, 2015; facebook.com/themechanicaltheater.