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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 4, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Much Ado About Nothing’

The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey (formerly New

Jersey Shakespeare Festival) has opened its season with a lively and

lovely-to-look-at production of Shakespeare’s "Much Ado About

Nothing." Under the new banner, the theater’s artistic director,

Bonnie J. Monte, has reined in a nimble company that does justice

and a bit more to the Bard’s most operatic-like and melodramatic comedy.

Partly enjoyable for the superficial fencing/sparring that sparks

the volatile relationship between Beatrice and Benedick, "Much

Ado…," however, offers considerable more ado and certainly more

poignancy in regard to the secondary lovers Hero and Claudio.

This production, crisply directed by Monte, sets the two pairs to

fend for love and respect within a handsome setting a la Fragonard

circa 1800 designed by James Wolk. Therein a row of tall green cedar

trees and a gazebo are set against a mountainous vista, made mobile

enough to imply various locations on the estate of the governor of

Messina, Sicily. A field day is provided for costumer Frank Champa,

whose elegant period designs for both the men and women are appealing

for their emphasis on cool and pastel tones.

But this production is even more appealing for its casting of a real

life husband and wife team: Sherman Howard and Donna Bullock. Sherman,

who appeared here last season as "Enrico IV," is Benedick,

and Bullock, who is making her Shakespeare Theater debut, is Beatrice.

Not to be left out the familial dramatics is their daughter Hannah

Sherman, who has but a walk on and one line, but accomplishes it with

aplomb. It’s worth noting that Howard and Bullock are following in

the footsteps of other married portrayers of B & B like Maggie Smith

and Robert Stephens (for NET-TV in 1965) and Emma Thompson and Kenneth

Branagh (I think they were still married then) in the ebullient 1993

film version.

As you may recall the plot, the lusty Claudio, here played in full

chauvinist bloom by Curtis Mark Williams, falsely denounces his rather

colorless bride Hero (winningly played by Ali Marsh, who was so fine

in "Proof" recently at the George Street Playhouse), as a

wanton on their wedding day. It takes more than a few contrivances

— bordering on the tragic — before their ultimate reuniting.

On the other hand, Hero’s sharp-tongued cousin Beatrice and the unsentimental,

eternal bachelor Benedick verbally joust on their way to love under

the watchful eyes of the in-laws and a pompous, illiterate constable.

Bullock is about as feisty as one could want this side of a shrew.

For all the mouthed put-downs, and the fearless forays with the unflappable

Benedick, Bullock always manages to remain a thoroughly disarming

lady of rare and noble bearing, even when her coiffure seems to be

unraveling on her head. Bullock has a flair for keeping the comical

excesses within the bounds of super naturalistic decorum. This serves

as a mocking catalyst for Howard’s more stern, but no less facetious,

embodiment of the susceptibly vain Benedick. Notwithstanding the fact

that Howard doesn’t exactly fit the description of a "young lord,"

he nevertheless suggests that a more dashing hero "of noble strain"

is waiting to emerge. There is in fact no escape from the prescribed

tomfoolery, and romantic clashes that Howard and the unceasingly spirited

Bullock keep dishing out.

If it is true that Shakespeare wrote "Much Ado…"

after he finished the histories and wanted to lighten up his canon,

he must assuredly be smiling down upon these two undoubtedly mature

contrarians who have captured and contrived not only all the lightness,

but the audacious and shadowed ironies that sizzle within B. and B.’s

magnetic skirmishes.

Monte has presented the intertwining love stories of B & B and H &

C in a manner ripe with sparkling theatricality, as these estranged

romancers breeze and bicker their way through kaleidoscopic intrigues.

Working within the familiar character and plot contrivances, Monte

creates a real and combustible disharmony between the light "merry

war" romance of B & B and the more somber tribulations of C &

H. Disharmony eventually turns into harmony and reaches its apex in

a beautiful final scene in which the two pairs jump aboard the spinning

gazebo, made extra magical by lighting designer Shelley Sabel.

With every ounce of imbecility intact, the bordering on illiterate

constable Dogberry (played with idiotic esprit by Eric Hoffman) and

his equally imbecilic subordinate watchers (Larry Swansen and James

Earley) may indeed be "shallow fools," but they do provide

the play’s biggest laughs as they bring to light the truth.

As the heinous troublemaker Don John, Edmond Genest is effective putting

a quietly sinister slant on his covert villainy. David Foubert and

Len Childers are excellent as the scheming followers of Don John.

Paul Niebanck is appropriately genial as the erudite Don Pedro. Making

the most of their small roles as Hero’s gentlewomen are a spunky Victoria

Mack and a vivacious Erin Lynlee Partin. They are part of a fine company

that is all for making much ado.

— Simon Saltzman

Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare Theater of New

Jersey , F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600.

To June 15. $29 to $55.

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