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Not about ‘nothing’

Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

Ah, Will, you gave us so many wonderful — and awful — stories and characters. Sometimes even in the same play.

The Old Globe’s summer festival brings us what Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein calls “the first English-language romantic comedy” in a sprightly production of William (Will) Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Love, and its complications, is a common theme in the production. (Photos by Jim Cox)

The play is primarily known for the two central characters, Beatrice and Benedick, who spend most of the play denying their mutual attraction until their friends trick them into admitting the truth. Yet it turns serious when a bad actor named Don John tries to scotch the wedding plans of two other important characters, soldier Claudio and pretty young thing Hero.

Under the assured directorial hand of Kathleen Marshall, The Old Globe moves the well-known story to the 1930s — clad with all Michael Krass’ eye-catching costumes that the era brought us, and performed on John Lee Beatty’s candy-colored set, which is complete with a crystal-look dining-room chandelier. It also tosses in many songs of the time, from Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall in Love” to Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”

But don’t let the lightness fool you. There’s near-tragedy waiting in the wings.

(l to r) Sara Topham as Beatrice, Larica Schnell as Ursula and Morgan
Taylor as Hero (Photo by Jim Cox)

You may recall the plot: The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Michael Boatman), his bastard brother Don John (Manoel Felciano) and two friends — the shy, young Italian nobleman Claudio (Carlos Angel-Barajas) and Benedick (Michael Hayden) — roll in from a successful battle in a jaunty-looking covered buggy.

Beatrice (Sara Topham) and Benedick promptly resume their “merry war” of words, while Claudio falls for Hero (Morgan Taylor), the pretty young daughter of the governor of Messina Leonato (René Thornton, Jr.).

A wedding is arranged for Hero and Claudio. While they’re waiting, Benedick’s buddies decide to speed up the groom-to-be’s realization that he actually loves Beatrice instead. To convince him, they set up a hilarious scene in which they claim to have heard Beatrice swooning over him. Beatrice’s friends Hero and Ursula (Larica Schnell) later do the same thing for Beatrice.

The full cast of “Much Ado About Nothing,” which runs through Sept. 16 at The Old Globe. (Photo by Jim Cox)

But our bad guy, Don John — played with great wickedness by Felciano — decides to ruin things for Claudio. John tells him Hero is unfaithful, and he claims he can prove it if Claudio and Hero’s father watch below her window that night, when he has set up a phony scene that gives that impression.

These guys fall for the ruse and the day of the wedding ends in great unhappiness, with Claudio denouncing Hero, as well as Hero’s father claiming it would be better if she died.

But never fear, all will be well and the show will end with both couples united.

Marshall has a splendid cast, most especially in Topham and Hayden as the bicker-all-the-way-to-the-bedroom lovers.

Taylor is an extremely lovely and affecting Hero. Angel-Barajas has the right look but seemed a bit tentative as young Claudio. Fred Applegate is hilarious as Dogberry, the malaprop-prone constable, and Felciano, a frequent Old Globe actor, is suitably nasty as Don John.

Despite the title, this play isn’t about “nothing.” It’s a pun on “noting,” and the topic is perception, misinterpretation and the ease with which people can be led to misconstrue actions or tricked into believing something that isn’t true.

This “Much Ado” has a great deal to recommend it, and I do.

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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