“Much Ado about Nothing” is the second of two offerings in the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s summer festival, playing through Aug. 3 at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater.
It is fun that the pairings in both plays — “Much Ado” alternates with “She Loves Me” — are the same. Love interests Laura Baronet and Ian Hopps (Amalia and Georg) in “She Loves Me” become Hero and Claudio in “Much Ado.” Susanna Risser and Matt Edwards (Ilsa and Kodaly in “She Loves Me”) become the relationship-phobic Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado.”
These two plays were chosen for this festival because the pairs were so similar. Director Rob Salas felt that presenting the two plays in repertory would help strengthen each. In fact, that decision works beautifully.
“Much Ado About Nothing” was written in the middle of Shakespeare’s career, just after the “Comedy of Errors,” “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He would go on to explore more serious topics with his tragedies.
“Much Ado” relies on two schemes. One is to convince Beatrice and Benedick they are in love. The other is to prevent the marriage of Hero and Claudio. All this occurs when Don Pedro (Tim Gaffaney), on his way home with his army, stops at the home of his friend, Leonato (John Haine), the governor of Messina.
DSE has chosen to set this play in the 1940s, just after the end of World War II, and Salas sees the fiery Beatrice as a “Rosie the Riveter” type, strongly independent, quick-tongued and needing no man in her life. Risser projects all of these qualities.
Benedick, who openly despises the whole idea of marriage, is not quite as sleazy as Edwards’ “She Loves Me” counterpart, but he is the master of wisecracks and one-upsmanship. Ultimately, however, it is he who is tricked into admitting his feelings for Beatrice.
The other love pair is the virginal Hero and the jealous Claudio. Baronet’s face glows as she expresses her love for Claudio and plans their upcoming nuptials.
But nobody expected the scurrilous plot of Don John (Matt K. Miller), a dark and thoroughly despicable character. He contrives with Don Pedro’s servant Borachio (Pablo Lopez) to convince Claudio of Hero’s infidelity.
Hopps, almost always likeable in both plays, becomes a disappointment as Claudio (he’s supposed to be!) when he so easily believes the lies that Hero has betrayed him, and publicly humiliates her. Baronet’s character does a right proper meltdown, thinking her life has been ruined. But we like Claudio again when the accusations against Hero are proven to be false.
An overstuffed Miller returns in Act 2 as Dogberry, the buffoonish constable. This is a delightful performance, aided by the comedic antics of Gabby Battista as Verges, which steal the show. Dogberry’s bumbling ends up saving the day, and the relationship of Hero and Claudio.
Incidental music for this production is provided by a trio of musicians, headed by musical director Richard Chowenhill. The reason for setting the play in the 1940s is that it provided the opportunity to use a swing style of music. “Swing is very flexible so we can really work all the different tones in the play,” Salas said.
This show belongs to Risser and Edwards. Their chemistry is undeniable as they convey both scorn and love for each other. Watching them perform, one cannot help but note how totally modern they seem. This is a tribute both to Shakespeare and to Salas’ excellent direction.