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Brilliant and bold performances anchor ‘Much Ado’

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Much Ado About Nothing

Riverside Festival Stage — through June 24

Patrick DuLaney and Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers in Riverside’s summer production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ — photo by Rob Merritt

Hepburn and Tracy. Ryan and Hanks. Taylor and Burton. Sam and Diane. Han and Leia. Whichever is your favorite, every bickering “will they or won’t they? (but they definitely will)” pair of lovers from television or film owes a lot of their witty repartee, sidelong glances and deep desires to Shakespeare’s “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Inspired by childhood memories of free Shakespeare in the Park at Delacorte Theatre in Manhattan, Riverside Theatre’s artistic director Sean Christopher Lewis has created a free, accessible and giddy production of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved romantic comedies, Much Ado About Nothing. Written mostly in clear prose (one of Shakespeare’s most prose heavy works), the playful wordplay, bawdy banter and physical comedy make this a delightful production, both for the first-time audience member and the Riverside regular.

Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers as Beatrice is sharp-tongued, mirthful and loyal. Patrick Dulaney excels in his role as her counterpart, Benedick. He is, by turns, cocky, charming and clownish. Together, they are dynamic. In the first act, they are brilliant and biting, and we get glimpses of whatever previously transpired between the two causing their “skirmish of wit.” Their teasing slows down in the second act as the play takes a tragic turn, and Benedick consoles the weeping Beatrice, promising to unite with her to defend her cousin’s honor.

In contrast to this complex relationship, the courtship of Hero and Claudio is often baffling in modern performances, but their story is nicely developed in the second act of this play. The younger counterparts to Beatrice and Benedick, Claudio and Hero fall in love, though they barely know each other. Claudio asks his friend Don Pedro to court her on his behalf, and then believes the Prince has wooed her for himself. He then believes a vicious rumor about Hero, abuses her on their wedding day and, after a contrite separation, he is overjoyed to be reunited with his love.

Zach Twardowski and Jessica Link in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ — photo by Rob Merritt

This is a lot for a younger actor to cover, but Zach Twardowski is passionate and bold in his performance, creating a rare forgivable Claudio. The role of Hero, too, is complicated, as she must forgive her fiancé after he publicly humiliates her and leaves her for dead, but the bubbly Jessica Link allows her Hero to feel pain, but also to believe in the goodness of others, including her Claudio, because of the virtues of Beatrice and Benedick.

Besides the two sets of lovers, other strong performances in this tight ensemble include the bumbling Constable Dogberry, played with Barney Fife-esque incompetence by the versatile Barrington Vaxter; the dashing and delightful Tim Budd as Don Pedro; the dastardly Don John, played with mustachio twirling villainy by Aaron Weiner; and the kindly Leonato, played by the accomplished Jim Kern.

Much Ado is Shakespeare’s great play about men returning from the wars and successfully rejoining the larger community by trading military uniforms for wedding bands and their weapons for “paper bullets” (love letters). As such, many productions, including this one, choose post-World War II as an appropriately optimistic setting for an updated adaption. Jill Van Brussel’s costumes run the range from Benedick and Claudio’s military attire to Beatrice’s Katherine Hepburn-styled pantsuits, and from Leonato, Don Pedro and Don John’s tuxedos and smoking jackets to Hero’s gowns, recalling the glamor of 1940s Hollywood.

The intro and outro musical selections are a variety of 1940s through early 1960s songs, and the scenic and lighting design by Benjamin Farrar recreates the backlot of the MGM Studios, but there is nothing that effectively moves this production into the world of Golden Age cinema. It doesn’t appear that Leonato is a film producer or that Hero is an aspiring actress, but only that the stylings of the cinema are here. This is a missed opportunity for playing more with setups between scenes or otherwise adding more meta-theatrical play as Shakespeare loved doing in his own works.

Opening night temperatures were in the mid-90s as the performance began, but the show was well attended, and audience members cooled themselves with handheld fans as they laughed at the romantic foils of the two sets of lovers, and clapped happily at the concluding weddings and closing jig.


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