It doesn't need to be said that the great plays of William Shakespeare are not only well written but well constructed. He knew how to make a tragedy more serious and a comedy funnier: by injecting just the right amounts of the other genre. It's amazing how often that gambit succeeded.
It certainly does in Much Ado About Nothing. The charming new production at the Pearl Theatre doesn't shy away from the more serious elements of Shakespeare's story. In fact, the production embraces them wholeheartedly, giving them at least equal - and in some cases greater - weight than they might otherwise have.
The show, which is playing in revolving repertory with Romeo and Juliet, may lead you to believe that the inhabitants of Verona have wandered onto the stage accidentally. No, Much Ado About Nothing was designed that way, by one of the greatest comedians of all time, blending tragedy with the comedy to make the comedy funnier.
If the Pearl production has a problem, it's that the story's darker elements threaten to overwhelm the comedy, which, when not handled by by Ray Virta and Joanne Camp, frequently doesn't play well.
Virta and Camp play the two would-be lovers, Beatrice and Benedick, with a good combination of bile and humor. They're the primary love story of Much Ado About Nothing, and what the audience can't help but care about, especially with two likable and entertaining personalities in the roles. Watching their journey from acid-tongued adversaries to might-be passionate lovers is to see one of Shakespeare's greatest progressions of character development.
But in order to more fully appreciate this, one can't overlook the more serious part of the story. It's a terrible moment when the young Hero is spurned by her beloved Claudio on their wedding day in front of all their guests. He believes, not without reason, that she betrayed him in her own bed chamber on the night before their wedding.
But is there ever much doubt that they won't eventually come together again? Likewise, how many places may Beatrice and Benedick end up other than each other's arms? Shakespeare, though frequently incorporating predictable ideas, never shied away from tackling them in surprising ways. Look at it as just another reason this play remains as funny as it must have been when it first premiered.
The production's director, J.R. Sullivan, much like Shakespeare himself, draws the audience's attention to the Beatrice and Benedick plot, and with Virta and Camp, both lovably cantankerous and smoldering in the roles, why not? They provide the strength at the core of the production, giving audience pleasing performances well worthy of Shakespeare's text.
Unfortunately, this is at the expense of the Hero and Claudio story, which never really takes off here. Granted, Eric Sheffer Stevens as the "villain" in the story, attempting to gain his revenge through subversion of the young couple's love, comes across as very flat and unfathomably vengeful. But Celeste Ciulla's Hero is beautiful and charming and her Claudio, Evan Robertson, a good match for her.
It's just that the Beatrice and Benedick story is what works so well, most of the rest of the show doesn't matter, and that's why Sullivan's Much Ado About Nothing, though not perfect, still comes across pretty well. Beowulf Boritt's wide wooden set, Devon Painter's colorful costumes, and Kenny Schutz's autumn-tinged lights give the production a charming comic visual flair, but Shakespeare's floral construction of his barbs and quips as played by Virta and Camp are all the decoration this production needs.
The Pearl Theatre Company