When presenting Shakespeare comedies, companies often forget that they should be funny. This is not the case with Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, one of the funniest shows of any kind seen on local stage this season.
Director Domenick Scudera retains fealty to the Bard’s witty and intelligent text, while successfully integrating musical jokes and physical comedy. Eleni Delopolous brings sass and strength to her Beatrice; Chance Dean plays off her well as Benedick. This fast-paced “merry war” between two of Shakespeare’s best characters is complemented by strong and humorous performances throughout.
Still, MUCH ADO is such a great play because it veers so close to tragedy: betrayal, deceit, disappointment, faked death, jealousy, and murderous intent threaten the comedic ending of young lovers Claudio (Isaiah Ellis) and Hero’s (Lauren Sowa) wedding. Villainous Don John (Ian Sullivan) is a prototype of the motivelessly malignant Iago so well played by J Hernandez in Philly Shakes’ concurrent OTHELLO. (Hernandez is also excellent as Don Pedro in MUCH ADO.) Scudera’s actors succeed even in moments of raging intensity, but the director dials down the tragedy, having Sullivan play Don John farcically, albeit quite humorously. However, Shakespeare was also sure that MUCH ADO should be funny: Don John’s wicked plot is foiled by the hapless Dogsberry (Eric Van Wie) and his assistant (Johnny Smith).
It’s great to see a production which so understands the humorous potential of the work. There’s only one bawdy joke accompanied by a pointed gesture to the crotch (a personal peeve of Shakespeare productions: do you ever see this in modern plays or real dialog?). The setting is curiously revamped to mid-20th century Italy (are the soldiers returning from Mussolini’s wars?), but Philly Shakes’ MUCH ADO is timeless comedy.
March 28 to May 19, 2013, phillyshakespeare.org.