Indeed, a plethora of misunderstandings and misinterpretations drive the plot of this rollicking and most delicious of the Bard’s romantic comedies. Much Ado About Nothing tells the story of two sets of lovers, the merrily warring Beatrice and Benedick, and the more docile, but ultimately volatile, relationship between her cousin Hero and Benedick’s comrade at arms, Claudio. With much hilarity and sadness, the entire play turns on misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Will Beatrice and Benedick get together despite their apparent distaste for each other? Will Hero’s sullied reputation be restored, and will she become Claudio’s bride? Will the villains who perpetrated the hoax sundering their union be brought to justice? These are just some of the questions Shakespeare poses and answers before the final wedding dance restores order and harmony, as all good Elizabethan comedies must do.
Compliments to Director Eleanor Holdridge, in her first season with the troupe, who creates a joyous atmosphere as she marshals a large cast—made up of veterans and newcomers—in a production worthy of STNJ’s 60th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of their partnership with St. Elizabeth University. The pace she achieves is spot on, quick enough to keep the audience on the edge of its collective seat, yet slow enough so the actors can be understood over the noises of nature and the many airplanes flying overhead! The sprightly repartee between Beatrice and Benedick becomes a tennis match, with insults lobbed back and forth at breakneck speed. On opening night, the audience responded to the terrible accusations of Hero’s infidelity that rend the social fabric with palpable righteous anger.
Returning actors Jesmille Darbouze and Benjamin Eakeley portray Beatrice and Benedick, respectively, with élan, using their entire bodies and expressive faces to convey their supposed disdain for one another. Watching Frost’s Benedick morph from swaggering confirmed bachelor (“methinks [the gentleman] doth protest too much”) to lovesick calf after hearing his comrades proclaim that she loves him is a joy to watch—and very funny. Under similar circumstances, Beatrice’s transformation is equally as funny, but more poignant; he’s broken her heart before, so she’s more cautious. Darbouze and Eakeley’s chemistry is so convincing and palpable that we so want them to fall in love—or admit their feelings for each other! (Right: Eakeley listesn as Reilly, Frost and Thompson discuss Beatrice's love for him.)
As the two more callow lovers, Fiona Robberson as Hero and Christian Frost exude naiveté. Most of the time, they look dopily at each other, but the two really come alive in Act II when he accuses her of being a “common stale” not worthy of his love and marriage proposal. Frost is righteous indignation personified as he rants and raves about honor; Robberson’s reaction to these false accusations is heartbreaking, so much so that there was a sharp collective intake of breath when she fainted precipitously. They are a delight in what can be minor roles.
Raphael Nash Thompson provides excellent support as a dignified, sober host Leonato. When he becomes enraged by Claudio’s accusations, however, the audience turns against him, for he rails more about the loss of his reputation than about his wronged daughter’s. Complimenting Thompson is James Michael Reilly who returns as Don Pedro, leader of the returning soldiers. He manages to invest a rather minor role with geniality and kindness, until he is duped into believing the rap against Hero.
Less successful is Jeffrey Mark Alkins as Don Pedro’s villainous bastard brother Don John. It wasn’t clear from his performance just why he wanted to wreak such havoc; failing to find a place between passivity and outright villainous tooth gnashing, he undercut the biggest example of misprisionment, one that could have led to a very tragic outcome. His easily manipulated sidekicks are ably portrayed by Jabari Carter as Borachio and Christopher Zou as Conrade.
Once again, the production values are superb. Charlie Calvert has designed an expansive Sicilian villa courtyard, complete with terra cotta floor tiles and hanging grapevines. Hunter Kaczorowski’s costumes evoke the Napoleonic Era for the soldiers and watch and the more casual attire appropriate to women living in a bucolic setting. Atmospheric lighting by Matthew J. Weisgable and sound by Scott Killian further enhance the effect, with vaguely Italian songs played before the play begins and again during the intermission. Danielle Liccardo provides lovely choreography for the party scene and the wedding at the end.
By my count, STNJ has producedMuch Ado About Nothing at least three times in the past 19 years: in 1997, at what is now the Mayo Performing Arts Center, before the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre opened; 2003, when they inaugurated their 41st season and celebrated their new name; and in 2014, when, along with a cast of mostly older actors, Beatrice and Benedick were played by a real-life married couple!
True to form, the current production doesn’t disappoint. Despite the devastating effects misprisionment has upon an innocent girl’s life, its inherent silliness is a welcome relief to what is going on around the world now. The fact that all ends well is heartening and hopeful. You’ll go home smiling.
Much Ado About Nothing will be performed at the Greek Amphitheatre on the campus of St. Elizabeth University in Convent Station through July 31st. The company is thrilled to continue their Free Tickets for Kids 17 and Under program, as well as its $30 Under 30 ticket price for adults 30 and under. All other adult tickets will be $40 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday evenings. Adult tickets for Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and the 4:00 p.m. Sunday Twilight Performances are $45. All performances other than the 4:00 p.m. Sunday Twilight Shows will begin at 8:00 PM. The free ticket program is generously supported by Dr. W. John Bauer and Nancy B. Boucher, and the Madison and Westfield Rotary Clubs.
For information and tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.