After two days of raging thunderstorms that would have provided an appropriate backdrop for King Lear, the weather was bright and mild on the opening night of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival — perfect for Much Ado About Nothing, one of Shakespeare’s loveliest and best-constructed comedies. But this production mixes so much that’s effervescent and delightful with so much that’s just off.
Beatrice loves Benedick and Benedick loves Beatrice, but neither of them knows this elementary fact. Which means that their friends have to arrange gulling sessions in which they make sure Benedick overhears the men discussing Beatrice’s unrequited passion for him and the women do the same for Beatrice. In almost all of Shakespeare’s comedies, even the sunniest, dark and light themes intermingle. Here the sadder undertones are provided by the story of Hero and Claudio, two youngsters in love and as charmingly innocent about it as Beatrice and Benedick are cynical. The villainous Don John convinces Claudio that Hero has been unfaithful, and Claudio renounces her just as they are about to marry. She falls to the floor, apparently lifeless. Tragedy is averted by robustly comic means, truth prevails, and the lovers are reunited through yet another trick, hatched by Hero’s father, Leonato, and Friar Francis, who put out word that Hero has actually died. It’s a familiar Shakespearean device, and in a nice touch by director Jim Helsinger, the song of mourning heard by a repentant Claudio at Hero’s tomb is the one that follows another fake death, that of Imogen in Cymbeline: “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.”
What delights? The celebratory tone of the entire production. It’s set in Victorian times, which isn’t relevant to the plot but means that we get elegant costumes (Hugh Hansen), a charming set (Caitlin Ayer), and beautifully warm and expressive lighting (Shannon McKinney). There’s some very strong acting, and all the principals speak Shakespeare’s words with clarity and intelligence. Periodically, a simply inspired moment of comedy occurs — and not necessarily where you expect it.
The most exciting performance comes from Vanessa Morosco as Beatrice. For years, I’ve thought of Emma Thompson’s sensual Beatrice in Ken Branagh’s movie as definitive. Morosco’s version is more waspish at first: Listening to her verbal duels with Benedick, you’re reminded of the venomous battles between Katherine and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. But her emotional palette is varied, and the feelings underlying her anger are touching. So are her joys: You really can’t help grinning at her unaffected delight when she learns of Hero’s engagement.
Actors do well with some of the smaller roles, too: Chris Kendall is a dignified Leonato and Geoffrey Kent a sympathetic Don Pedro. There’s a pleasantly understated performance from Sam Hardy as Don John’s sidekick, Borachio, and a juicily overstated one from Rodney Lizcano as Dogberry.
But there’s also too much hamming in other parts of the cast, and that’s what makes this production so mixed. Much of my ambivalence stems from Peter Simon Hilton’s interpretation of Benedick. Hilton’s a gifted comic actor, and at first I enjoyed his crazy and highly original antics; eventually, though, I found them overwhelming. Most directors stage the pivotal gulling scenes for very broad comedy, and Helsinger is no exception. Which is okay until the comedy gets so big and wild that the purpose of the scenes is lost: When Benedick hears that Beatrice loves him, his response is funny, but it’s also core-deep. Immediately after the revelation, however, Hilton’s Benedick takes a distracting promenade through the audience, flirting and joshing. He does become stronger and more effective as the action progresses, all the while maintaining his comic edge; it seems love has done wonders for him.
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Overall, though, the audience has been so primed for easy and continual laughter that it ripples out in deadly serious moments, as when Beatrice commands a stunned Benedick to “kill Claudio,” and again when Claudio sees the love he thinks lost forever and murmurs incredulously, “Another Hero.” Which means the play’s crucial balance of dark and light is out of kilter and its music has been muted.
Much Ado About Nothing, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 9, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado Boulder, 303-492-8008, coloradoshakes.org.