All hail Shakespeare. All hail director Julianne Boyd. Aw, heck, all hail everybody at Barrington Stage Company involved with “Much Ado About Nothing,” now in a big, bright, in-your-face production through Aug. 25.
The sublime Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film version initially got in my way of appreciating this mounting. But film isn’t stage, so I settled in and let Boyd’s take work its magic on me. It did. And Act II, which begins with the appearance of Dogberry, is simply overwhelming in its comedy and pathos.
The locale of this version is Messina, Sicily, 1936, so you know the costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti will be smart — including Hepburn-inspired pants for Beatrice (Gretchen Egolf), who bestrides the stage with all the bravado of that screwball comedy icon.
She will not marry, she says, especially that “stuffed man” Benedick (Christopher Innvar), a soldier with whom she once had a brief fling. In Act I the repartee between the two is witty and defensive, but their family and friends, who see through the humor to the longing, grow weary of the standoff between these two boastful characters and contrive a rapprochement.
’Much Ado About Nothing’
WHERE: Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass.
WHEN: Through Aug. 25
HOW MUCH: $58-$15
MORE INFO: 413-236-8888, barringtonstageco.org
Boyd shatters the fourth wall, a natural progression from Shakespeare’s soliloquies and asides. The show begins with mandolin and guitar music performed by musicians who, after acknowledging the audience’s applause, become musicians at the residence of Leonato (Philip Kerr), Governor of Messina. From there it’s no problem to have characters interact directly with the audience.
Boyd brilliantly balances the comedy with drama. The wedding scene between Claudio (Babak Tafti) and Hero (Christina Pumariega) is a case in point. The viciousness of Claudio’s mistaken condemnation of Hero; Leonato’s reaction; Hero’s fearful response; the sage advice of Friar Francis (David Ryan Smith); and the sudden maturing of the feelings between Beatrice and Benedick — the cast rings all of these changes with subtlety, prompting our tears, surprise, laughter, sense of relief.
The cast is strong, and if I mention only a few performers, it’s for lack of space. Mark H. Dold’s Don John is a tightly wound villain, snapping heads off of flowers and smiling through his snarl. Ben Cole’s Watchman is an endearing cousin to the Rude Mechanicals in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” John Cariani’s pompous, malapropism-spouting Dogberry grows on you, and his delivery of the “ass” speech is a comic gem.
In secondary roles, Pumariega and Kerr do a lot of heavy lifting. Pumariega’s Hero is basically a giddy sidekick in Act I, but in the fireworks of Act II she more than holds her own. Kerr has a mountain of monologues, which he climbs assiduously, shading each comment with great feeling.
Innvar and Egolf and Shakespeare: what a trio! If Egolf is a little loud and obvious in the first part of Act I, expounding some of Beatrice’s witty remarks, she soon peels away the layers of this young woman’s personality to show her hurt and her hope. Innvar’s readings of Benedick’s soliloquies are spot-on. His Benedick is a guy basically a half-step behind Beatrice, who self-justifies with simple delight.
But when everything is on the line for these characters, Egolf and Innvar make them flesh-and-blood people capable of genuine love. Their kiss-and-clinch scene is a triumph.
In her director’s notes Boyd says that “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of her “all-time favorite plays.” She’s honored that enthusiasm with a stunning production.