Even critics resist breaking the spell by asking how the effect is being achieved. Until admiration and curiosity get the best of us, that is. Director Penny Metropulos (who last year offered a fascinating and provocative Richard II, starring James Carpenter, featured here as Benedick) concludes this otherwise lackluster season with a fresh, funny, and highly entertaining Much Ado About Nothing.
This is the comedy that asks, if you knew someone you couldn't stand was madly in love with you, would you fall in love in return? The two loathers (and loathees) are the immortal romantic duo, Beatrice and Benedick, and their mischievously devised love story is played out beside darker themes.
After a successful war, Don Pedro (Joe Vincent) and his army return to Sicily and the home of Leonato (Julian Lopez-Morillas) for a little R&R. Claudio (Don Burroughs), a young nobleman-soldier, falls in love with Leonato's daughter, Hero (Suzanne Irving). Thanks to Don Pedro's playful conniving, a marriage is arranged. All this is observed with cheerful disdain by Claudio's comrade, the swaggering Benedick (James Carpenter), a Casanova who has vowed never to marry. Soon, however, Benedick finds himself up against Leonato's niece, the independent and outspoken Beatrice (Domenique Lozano). Naturally they despise one another, but, where there's so much spark, of course there's fire. And with Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio amusing themselves by playing Cupid, Benedick and Beatrice are amazed to find themselves madly in love.
Meanwhile, Shakespeare's frequently examined themes of faith and deceit, betrayal and retribution, are set in motion by Don Pedro's bastard brother, Don John (Howard Swain), who undertakes to act as spoiler and nearly succeeds. His evil plot is foiled by two of the Bard's most beloved clowns, the bumbling constable Dogberry (Dan Hiatt) and his partner, Verges (Swain again).
Given that this is all pretty standard comedic fare, what gives this production its juice? As a director, Metropulos is not from the flash-and-fireworks school. The stage setting (a simple and beautiful design by Michael Vaughn Sims, with lighting by David K.H. Elliott) is an understated Mediterranean villa with a movable wrought-iron gate, used frequently to great comic effect, as are two bare-branched trees in planters. The result is a sort of Laurel and Hardy cartoon world in which ladders disappear, heads get caught in fences, and trees move to create hiding places -- reminding us that the simpler the comedic setup, the greater the payoff.
The initial entrance of the newly triumphant army is also distinctly low-key. There is no attempt to puff and posture energetically, to knock our socks off and convince us of how happy, happy, happy they are to be there. (Is there anything more irritating than a hyperactive opening, which overlooks its obligation to set the scene for the audience and instead contrives to convince us of its own importance?)
This Much Ado concentrates on delineating the action and the players as we need to understand them. What develops is a richly human scene, populated by characters who for all their comic foibles are complicated and believable. Metropulos and her cast concentrate on the play's relationships rather than allow any one character (or actor, for that matter) to strain for attention. The easy camaraderie among Leonato, Don Pedro, Benedick, and Claudio shows us friends who are equally able to offer sympathy or engage in bantering. We accept Benedick as a lady's man whose security is threatened by a woman who challenges his behavior. Then, as the play unfolds, the drama becomes first Benedick's and then Beatrice's journey of self-discovery.
The women balance this clubby and cozy male world with a well-established social order of their own. Beatrice is an artist, a sculptor, who is cheerful in her admission that she's not deferential to men and is therefore likely to remain unmarried. Hero is undeniably pretty and young, but seems bowled over by Claudio, happily and helplessly in love. Her shock at being accused of infidelity on her wedding day is all the more painful for her initial faith in the goodness of the world and the rightness of love.
Which brings us to the performances. I once had a teacher who defined acting as the ability to be private in public, something achieved to an exemplary degree by this cast. Howard Swain, a last-minute replacement for two actors, sets the tone by creating a Don John whose only apparent interest is to be true to himself. He's not a talkative fellow, he tells his compatriots, and he's not about to act the phony by partying when he's in a bad mood. Of course, this petulant honesty is really a product of envious rage, something which Swain develops and fosters carefully.
So compelling is his Don John, we hardly recognize Swain as Verges, Dogberry's illiterate assistant. This is an actor whose face and bearing have put an unforgettable stamp on a wide variety of roles in local theaters, but who here seems to surpass himself by becoming a chameleon.
As Benedick, James Carpenter is smooth, savvy, and sexy -- the least we should expect from him. What sets him apart is his thinking. We are privy to his astounding turnaround as he overhears Leonato, Don Pedro, and Claudio set their mischievous romantic trap. Suddenly, on hearing that Beatrice lusts after him, he knows that he is madly, passionately in love with her. His breathtaking realization makes him sweetly vulnerable and appealing.
Domenique Lozano's Beatrice is a fascinating construct, a woman who can appear spinsterish and rigid one minute, tender and winsome the next. But like Benedick, this Beatrice is always highly intelligent and never seems foolishly romantic.
As Lady Margaret, Tanya Shaffer is fresh and exuberant. But her quiet shame when she realizes she's been the pawn in the plot that undoes her mistress is eloquent in its understatement.
Don Burroughs' Claudio is puppyish, perhaps a bit too much for my taste, but his callow willingness to believe the worst of his beloved is well-balanced against his initial eagerness to marry her. Burroughs also makes Claudio's contrition arise logically and naturally. Julian Lopez-Morillas lends force and authority to Leonato, the betrayed and dishonored father; and Joe Vincent is positively gleeful as Don Pedro, the prince who loves playing Cupid.
But it's Dan Hiatt as Dogberry who nearly walks off with the show. He looks like Snoopy as the Red Baron, with his leather helmet and scarf, and he postures in a wondrously preposterous and self-important way. Dogberry thinks in malapropisms, and Hiatt spews them out with unshakable authority. It's a tour de force performance that crowns an evening full of them.
Much Ado About Nothing runs through Oct. 8 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre in Orinda; call (510) 548-9666.