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True Love Ways

Much Ado About Something

Tony Tsendeas and Bethany Hoffman (above) in Much Ado About Nothing

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/27/2001

Much Ado About Nothing

William Shakespeare

The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's production of the comedy Much Ado About Nothing is crisp and clever. With a beautiful set, a large and energetic cast, gorgeous costumes, and brisk pacing, this is a thoroughly enjoyable show--with one unfortunate exception.

The action takes place in a lovely Venetian-style courtyard filled with creeping vines and faux pink marble designed by Robert Marietta. The feeling of fantasy is enhanced by Jennifer Stearns' lush costumes, especially the intricate masks for the play's masquerade ball. In this fairy-tale setting, Much Ado About Nothing unfolds with a plot as convoluted as one expects from the man who coined the phrase "the path of true love never did run smooth."

Don Pedro returns from battle with his battalion, which includes a brave young soldier named Claudio, the witty Benedick, and Don Pedro's treacherous brother, Don John. The men stay with Don Pedro's friend Leonato, the governor of Messina. Claudio promptly falls for Hero, the governor's daughter, and they get engaged. On the other hand, Beatrice, Leonato's niece, and Benedick spend their time scorning both love and one another, prompting Don Pedro to play matchmaker, with amusing results. Meanwhile, Don John, being the type of villain who messes things up for people just because he doesn't like seeing them happy, convinces Claudio that Hero isn't a virgin, causing Claudio to publicly disgrace her.

The thing that makes Much Ado such an enduring and well-loved play is the relationship between Beatrice and Benedick. Their cynical take on romance is more in line with modern sensibilities than the idealistic musings of Shakespeare's more traditional lovers. And their fiery wits are reminiscent of Shakespeare's clowns; imagine a female Touchstone from As You Like It falling for Twelfth Night's Feste. Bethany Hoffman and Tony Tsendeas fill Beatrice and Benedick's shoes admirably. They're both scene-stealers, full of energy and excellent comic timing, playing off each other and the rest of cast with pluck.

Many of the other members of this large ensemble also give excellent performances. Dana Whipkey's Don Pedro is clever and charismatic. Stephen Galloway Jr. captures Claudio's idealistic love and disdain wonderfully, and James Kinstle brings strength and kindness to Leonato. Along with Tsendeas' Benedick, the four men have a great rapport, and their scenes together crackle with energy; Hoffman's Beatrice has less to play off. Kelli Danaker does a fine job as Hero, but her character's main purpose is to smile sweetly, so Hoffman's outspoken Beatrice overshadows her. Robb Bauer has the unenviable task of portraying Don John, a fairly one-dimensional villain. Bauer is suitably creepy, but his villainous cackle is a bit over the top.

The real problem with this production isn't necessarily caused by its cast, but by the Bard himself: the comic-relief scenes featuring the governor's inept guard Dogberry. These interludes just aren't funny. In Kenneth Branagh's excellent, star-studded 1993 movie version of Much Ado, even Michael Keaton has trouble making this awkward slapstick role work. For the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival production, Mary Ann Walsh plays the role as a hillbilly bumpkin surrounded by other hillbilly bumpkins--an imbecile among morons, if you will. Her garbled speech and lack of comedic chemistry with the other guards make the scenes drag horribly. Director Laura Hackman really should shorten them, especially considering how funny and briskly paced the rest of the play is. Much Ado About Nothing would be funnier if it had less comic relief.

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