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Beatrice and Benedick Battle It Out With Wit and Affection In Lively "Much Ado About Nothing" at Pettoranello Gardens

Donald Gilpin

The "nothing" referred to in the title here consists of nothing less than romance and treachery, elaborate deceptions and deadly machinations, whirling words and dueling insults – and ultimately an exploration of the perplexing vicissitudes of love.

Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99) during the period of his greatest romantic comedies, and it contains only a hint or two of the darker tones that arise in some of the later comedies and the monumental tragedies. In Much Ado the villainy poses only a flimsy, short-lived threat to the world of the play, the catastrophes are of relatively short duration, and a witty, light-hearted atmosphere prevails throughout.

The main plot – the hasty courtship of Claudio and Hero, her "disloyalty" and rejection by Claudio, her subsequent vindication and their eventual marriage – is less interesting than the more mature, intelligent verbal skirmishing in the psychologically complex relationship of Beatrice and Benedick. And, in the romantic comedic tradition, the "much ado" – extensive plotting, the fierce protestations of the characters, vast confusions and a rich panoply of clever verbiage – comes to "nothing" in the end as the play culminates in the happy marriages of the four central figures.

Princeton Rep Company, under the direction of Victoria Liberatori, shifts the setting from 16th century Italy to the United States at the end of World War II, streamlines the original text and presents a breezy, fun-filled evening, punctuated by 1940's big band dance music, in the beautiful Pettoranello Gardens. Production values here are consistently high, and the talented ensemble of twelve brings Shakespeare's words and characters to life with clarity and conviction.

Much Ado has been subjected, with mixed success, to numerous updatings in recent years – the ante-bellum South, the Wild West, Edwardian England, 1930's Cuba, a modern cruise ship, James Bond's 1960's England, for just a few examples. Ms. Liberatori's creative adaptations are tasteful and intelligent, serving the play well, keeping the action moving and helping to communicate effectively the comedy, the romance and the intricate plot. Military garb and other '40's attire, music of the swing era and props (most notably a 1940's vintage GM truck) contribute to the spirit of the production without compromising Shakespeare's timeless vision of love, marriage and the battle of the sexes.

Only the most fastidious Shakespeare aficionados will miss the supporting characters – a brother of the presiding father figure, a second waiting woman, a third conniving conspirator, and a third watchman – who have been deleted. Ms. Liberatori's cuts to the script also contribute judiciously to the pace, clarity and impact of the production.

Nell Gwynn as Beatrice and Alfredo Narciso as Benedick provide the powerful focal point for this production. Two poised, appealing, experienced actors playing two strong, outspoken characters, Ms. Gwynn and Mr. Narciso prove adept in fulfilling the considerable demands of these renowned protagonists. As Beatrice and Benedick struggle with each other and with themselves and all their antipathies to romance, these actors vividly convey, in speech, expression, gesture and movement the array of thoughts and emotions that these richly drawn characters experience. Their comic timing is superb, as they spar verbally and emotionally throughout the play.

It is one of the great delights of Shakespeare's comedies when these two, strong-willed, independent figures suddenly, shockingly, find themselves smitten by love. Ms. Gwynn's timelessly modern Beatrice grudgingly accepts her love, and the confirmed bachelor Benedick, who falls "horribly in love," finally, hilariously, rationalizes, "The world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married."

Addison McQuigg and Natalie Knepp ably take on the less rewarding roles of the traditional romantic pair: Claudio, amusing here in his dim-wittedness, and Hero, charming in her youthful innocence. Claudio, along with the capable C.M. Silver as Hero's father Leonato, provides the evening's darkest, most disturbing moment when Claudio renounces his falsely accused bride and Leonato his "unchaste" daughter in a shockingly abusive display of male dominance and double standards.

Ehren Ziegler as Don John plays an appropriately smooth and sneering villain; and an expressive Joe Fellman is his worthy henchman Borachio, with an expanded role (because of the elimination of the third villain Conrade), some deft comic touches and engaging interaction with the audience.

Hal Klein as Dogberry the Chief-of-Police, along with his cohorts played by Natalie Megules and Ryan Shrime, are the Keystone Cops here, bumbling into a discovery of Don John's treachery and eventually managing to save the day. All three performers are adept at their roles, but the farcical humor – filled with malapropisms and clowning – is less than hilarious and has been mercifully and wisely condensed in this Princeton Rep production. Scott Clarkson, and Laura Danilov deliver additional strong, competent support to the proceedings.

Timothy Amrhein's vine-covered villa of a set provides a colorful, accommodating venue for staging the action, along with a wealth of opportunities for the requisite entrances and exits, and ideal places for eavesdropping and hiding. This finely detailed unit setting, expertly lit by Tyler Maulsby, helps Ms. Liberatori to move the action swiftly and smoothly from scene to scene. Marie Miller's period costumes and sound by Tom Seeland also contribute significantly in creating post-World War II America and the world of Shakespeare's comedy.

As Beatrice and Benedick continue, for one more weekend, to battle it out in their "kind of merry war" at the Pettoranello Gardens, the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival wraps up another successful season, engaging receptive audiences with highly accessible and entertaining productions of Shakespeare's masterpieces "with an attitude for our times."

Much Ado About Nothing runs for one more weekend Thursday through Sunday, August 5-8, at 8 pm. For information call (609) 921-3682, or visit www.princetonrep.org.


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