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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Much Ado About Nothing
Mauckingbird Theatre Company

Much Ado About Nothing
Matthew Tallman and
Sean Thompson

Mauckingbird Theatre Company's take on Much Ado About Nothing has several commendable qualities. For instance, there's sensitivity and sweetness in its approach to Shakespeare's classic play. And it's nice to see that this brave company, whose productions always tackle gay themes, has made all the play's romances gay ones—and that all of these romances seem perfectly natural, played without any awkwardness. (The female roles are played by men and, while the characters still have feminine names like Beatrice and Ursula, they are played as men, with the appropriate masculine pronouns.)

But Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy, and director/adaptor Peter Reynolds has emphasized the romance more than the comedy. That's not always bad in a play that has two romances at its core, but the comic scenes, especially the ones with the buffoonish constable Dogberry, got very few laughs on opening night.

There's also a problem with the show's pace, which affects the way it tells the story. This production chops an hour or so off the running time to come in at about an hour and forty minutes, with no intermission. That's not necessarily a bad thing; I've seen shorter productions (two years ago, Theatre Exile did a Much Ado that crammed the show into an hour, but did so by eliminating subplots so efficiently that one didn't sense anything crucial was missing). But here, all the major plot points remain, along with some dialogue that makes sense in this context (why even mention Beatrice's attraction to clean-shaven men, and Benedick's shaving of his beard, if the actor playing Benedick is clean-shaven throughout?). Cutting so little of the text forces the cast to run though its lines at a breakneck pace, which makes the text hard to follow. Contributing to the chaos is the casting of men in all the roles that are traditionally female; perhaps making one of the couples female, as in Mauckingbird's excellent A Midsummer Night's Dream two summers ago, would have helped make everything clearer.

Things move so quickly and confusingly at the play's beginning that it took me about fifteen minutes to figure out who everybody was and what was going on. (And considering that I had seen another production of the same play just six days before—a superb, lush and hilarious version, now closed, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival—that's really saying something.)

Still, the central performances are worth paying attention to. Matt Tallman and Sean Thompson play Benedick and Beatrice (respectively) with lots of hard edges at first (and Thompson is too harsh to be likable), but seeing them soften each other up is quite affecting. The other romantic couple, Hero and Claudio, are played by Cameron Scot Slusser and Griffin Back, who, both short and slight, make a cute couple. The only women in the cast—Cheryl Williams as the governor Leonato and Erika Anselmo as Leonato's (now) sister Antonio—add a nice sense of warmth and wisdom.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare's best comedies, but Mauckingbird's production isn't an ideal introduction to the work. It lacks the imagination and inventiveness Mauckingbird has brought to Shakespeare in the past, and it needs more lightness and clarity to make it reach the heights it's capable of. But its casual insertion of a modern sensibility into the play works seamlessly; anyone complaining about the way gay themes have been added would be making, well, much ado about you-know-what.

Much Ado About Nothing runs through August 26, 2012, and is presented by Mauckingbird Theatre Company at the Off-Broad Street Theater at First Baptist Church, 1636 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $25, with discounts available for students and seniors, and are available by calling the box office at (215) 923-8909 or online at www.mauckingbird.org.

Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed and Adapted by Peter Reynolds
Costume Design... Marie Anne Chiment
Lighting Design... Shon Causer
Set Design Zachary Limbert
Production Stage Manager... Michael Ambler

Cast:
Leonato... Cheryl Williams
Beatrice... Sean Thompson
Hero... Cameron Scot Slusser
Don Pedro... Chancellor Dean
Benedick... Matt Tallman
Don John... Ben Lyle Lotka
Claudio... Griffin Back
Antonio... Erika Anselmo
Borachio... Mitchell Bloom
Balthasar... LJ Norelli
Conrade... Evan Raines
Ursula... Joe Mathew
Dogberry... Will Poost
Verges... Philip Anthony Wilson


Photo: Paul Guzzone


-- Tim Dunleavy



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