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The Compass Theatre Company's Much Ado About Nothing needs more room. The cramped space of the Dorie studio in the Denver Civic Theatre is more suited to smaller casts. But restricted as the actors are, they still manage to bustle, run, stand in elaborate ceremonious arrangements and even dance. So...
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The Compass Theatre Company's Much Ado About Nothing needs more room. The cramped space of the Dorie studio in the Denver Civic Theatre is more suited to smaller casts. But restricted as the actors are, they still manage to bustle, run, stand in elaborate ceremonious arrangements and even dance. So even as the viewer worries that someone might fall off the stage or trip on the scenery, a wondrous energy dominates, leaving you a little giddy--and slightly uncomfortable.

Chancy as the action seems to be, however, a solid interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most endearing comedies braces the whole production. Thoughtful and charming, this Much Ado is competent and bright, if not inspired.

As the story opens, Leonato welcomes to his home Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. In Don Pedro's train are the ever-witty Benedick and the handsome young Claudio. But also among the prince's followers are his bastard brother Don John and Don John's wicked henchmen.

Leonato has a beautiful, modest young daughter, Hero, and a niece, Beatrice, who is every bit Benedick's equal in wit and disdain. There's a kind of "merry war" between them, and their friends enjoy the conflict. But when Claudio falls in love with Hero and wins her hand, Leonato, Claudio and the prince decide that it's about time for Benedick to eat his words and get married himself. So the three conspire to make Benedick fall in love with Beatrice. Enlisting the aid of Hero and her gentlewomen, they plot against Beatrice, too. The inevitable ensues, and the two scoffers end up loving each other.

Meanwhile, wicked Don John has not been idle. Out of spite toward his brother, he restlessly plans to hurt the prince by thwarting Claudio and Hero's romance. Don John's nastiness is so effective, devious and ugly that Hero is disgraced, her whole family reduced to acute misery and Claudio and the prince tied up in base and unjustified resentment. Don John is a lot like Iago in Othello. And Much Ado, like the tragic Othello, is also about bearing false witness and the insinuations of evil-minded but fair-sounding men.

But this is a comedy, and in comedy, evil does not win out. As manifestly unlikely as Shakespeare's resolution is, it fits our best sense of justice. Someone has to spring the innocent from the traps perverse men set for them. And there's something about the brutality toward the innocent Hero that startles us and also rings true; there's enough of that going around in the late twentieth century.

The Compass Theatre Company always does a lot with very little. A few diaphanous drapes hang at the rear of and flow onto the raked stage, forming the nooks and hedges behind which first Benedick, then Beatrice, and finally the nightwatchmen (who uncover the plot against Hero) hide. The costumes are simple and delightful Empire-style dresses and uniforms. Overdresses change the purpose as well as the look of the costumes, and much is left to the viewer's imagination. But the language is so delicious, we don't need elaborate costume changes.

Christopher Selbie plays Benedick as an aging soldier boy who knows how to act like a grownup but refuses to until the last act. Whether he's deceiving himself about women, falling goofily in love with Beatrice or advising a friend to remain a bachelor, he's mercurial and lively. In the end, Selbie allows us to see Benedick grow into manhood, and it's a rewarding sight.

Angi Hanan's Beatrice is always lively, smart and interesting. But she doesn't time her jokes terribly well (a problem that afflicts several other performers), and there's something else missing--a self-possession that the role demands. Meredith Davis is natural and adorable as Hero, though her tears seem forced in the crucial denunciation scene. Tom Flynn has a commanding presence and gives a perfect image of a prince as Don Pedro; Matt Allen Magbee's Don John, however, is merely sulky when he should smolder. And Joey Wishnia's Dogberry leads a terrific bunch of comic buffoons as the nightwatchmen.

We all know just how absurd life can get, and Shakespeare delights in reminding us of the mad, dreamlike and foolish qualities of the human experience. It's helpful, even reassuring, to be reminded so pleasantly that, as Benedick says, "man's a giddy thing, and that is my conclusion...

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