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Smashing Beatrice and Benedick Grace CSC's Much Ado

Despite its immense popularity, Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99) is far from a perfect play. Built on the intertwining of three plots, it must sustain one which, in modern eyes, is bound to be a loser, or close to it: the rocky road to love of the second hero, Claudio, and second heroine, confusingly named Hero. Claudio rejects Hero at the altar after having been deceived into the conviction that she was with another man the preceding night. Later, Claudio is undeceived, and all ends well. To get the audience's sympathies in the "right" place, this plot depends upon it subscribing to a bygone cult of premarital chastity (in well-born women, at least) which bestowed an untouchable status upon women who transgressed, and on a distinctly old-world fixation on sexual jealousy. And you can say that that old fixation drives everything from Othello to most of grand opera, but that won't change the fact that few of us have any sympathy for it today. In modern eyes, it's just weird and pernicious. Worse, this part of the plot is clunky mechanically, and the characters of Hero and Claudio are distinctly underdeveloped.

So, as I say, one-third of Much Ado may not be quite about nothing, but it's not about much; the show must rely for its success on the remainder, namely the "merry war" between the tart-tongued Beatrice and Benedick, a soldier who firmly disbelieves in romance, and the antics of the city watchmen, led by Constable Dogberry. An outstanding Beatrice and Benedick can deliver the play on their own, and if Dogberry and company are up to speed, the tedium of Claudio and Hero will absolutely be forgotten as the theatergoer wends his/her way home. So the winning strategy for a director of this warhorse is to give us a riproaring Beatrice and Benedick, make us laugh at Dogberry, and serve up a serviceable Claudio and Hero.

The current production of Much Ado, being presented in repertory with Hamlet by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, exceeds these minima, and serves up a delightful evening to the theatergoer, but it is somewhat of a near thing.

Where the production unqualifiedly succeeds is with its Beatrice and Benedick. In Lesley Malin (also the Managing Director of the company) and Michael P. Sullivan, CSC has found leads who can do no wrong. What these roles call for first of all is maturity. By virtue of their long holding out from participation in the marital stakes, these characters have been single long enough to have seen and understood more. Each, possessing these qualities, is perfect for the other. As the novelist George Gissing wrote of one of heroines, "she was the woman a man in his maturity loves unashamed." Malin and Sullivan convey this; each brings an obvious and necessary intelligence to their characters' verbal duels, and each somehow conveys as well, beneath the wit, a slightly sad wisdom, and an honest capacity for rueful self-awareness. In promotional materials, Malin writes that from her teen years she "wanted to play Beatrice more than anything." It shows. And Sullivan convinces, as well, when he is forced to resume the role of the warrior for a while at the end. He evinces not just the lover and the wit, but also the man of action.

The Hero and Claudio story is also done more than competently. Katie Molinaro's talent is probably wasted in the undistinguished role of Hero, and James Jager evinces the callowness of Claudio just fine. As Hero's father Leonato, Steven J. Hoochuk brings a certain gravity and depth to his part in the secondary plot, though he is more interesting to watch in his role as a plotter in the scheme to trick Beatrice and Benedick into falling in love.

This is well, because the Dogberry piece is just weak. Director Ryan Whinnem apparently went with a dry and grave manner for Dogberry (Dave Gamble), the constable whose ill-instructed watch improbably lucks into solving the crime and saving Hero. You can see the likely directorial thinking: the absurd malapropisms that tumble from Dogberry's mouth would be all the more incongruous if delivered by one who appears imposing and wise to himself (a sort of Florence Foster Jenkins of sententious law enforcement). But Dogberry works best with less reserve, if he brings a certain earnest enthusiasm to his unbelievable incompetence. And it helps if his posse all do the same. Katie Kedell, as Verges, the scribe, captures it, but the others do not. It is important that there be some modicum of misguided commitment among all these incompetent souls, because otherwise, as here, the confession of the plotter Borachio to them seems inexplicable, and it needs to be somewhat believable, if Shakespeare is to sell us on the final twists of the plot. Director Whinnem appears to have chosen instead to punt; you can see this in a bit of business when Borachio is shackled: he is clearly leading the watchman who is supposed to be leading him. If there is literally nothing at all imposing or even motivated about these watchmen, then Borachio's confession comes across as just a plot device, a mere laughable convention. That is not wise. And it seems as if the watch is made up of the least experienced cast members, two of them unconventionally cast women for whom the roles are transformed into female roles. This just does not work. The watch needs some machismo.

Still, this production is a clear winner on points.

And if the show needed help, it would come in the form of the wonderful setting, the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute, which serve as amphitheater, set and production facility all in one. Here people bring picnics, and children (admitted free) play in advance of the show. While you can bring a chair or blanket, seating is available for those who do not, and the pleasant, family-friendly atmosphere by itself is a powerful inducement to come.

Overall, it's a very good time. Come and bring the kids.

Much Ado About Nothing, June 11-July 11, weather permitting, at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. Free shuttle buses run from parking lot at 3691 Sarah's Lane, Ellicott City, MD 21043. Tickets $15-$30. Children under 18 free. 410-313-8874. .

Photo Credit: Teresa Castracane

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