In his director's notes for Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing at American Players Theatre, David Frank argues that Shakespeare's renowned comedy is more than an amiable but ultimately empty, even nihilistic play, as its title might imply. And the production certainly bears that out. In fact, this Much Ado (through October 5), celebrates the emotion and meaning underneath dozens of barbs thrown back and forth by the bickering pair Beatrice and Benedick. Their love for one another easily transcends the word games, tricks and misdirection that send the other characters scurrying through infatuations and disappointment, creating a beautiful and touching interpretation of one of the play.
The story begins with a group of soldiers returning triumphantly from war, stopping at the estate of Leonato (Brian Mani), his brother Antonio (Paul Bentzen), his delicate young daughter Hero (Kelsey Brennan) and his niece, the quick-witted and sometimes sharp-tongued Beatrice (Colleen Madden). When the handsome young soldier Claudio (Nate Burger) falls instantly in love with Hero, the group merrily begin to plan the wedding. To amuse themselves, they also plot to convince the ever-arguing couple Beatrice and Benedick (David Daniel) that true love lies underneath their antagonism for one another. Don John (Eric Parks), the dark, brooding bastard brother of the Prince, Don Pedro (Jeb Burris), sees an opportunity to wreak havoc on the happy occasion and tries to derail the lovers' plans. But when the truth is revealed, the couples' love triumphs.
In many productions, the sweet story of love at first sight between the pure, obedient Hero and the noble Claudio is given as much weight as the affection between stubborn, sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick. But Frank decides instead to highlight the differences between the two couples, to great effect.
Hero, dressed in ridiculous and frilly gowns throughout the play, is presented as a pretty, valuable possession of her father, to be given as a prize and then rejected as a damaged commodity when it is alleged that her virginity and honor are not intact. As easily as Claudio professed his love for her, he humiliates and slanders her at the altar, only to reconcile with her later when Don John's evil plot is exposed. Though Burger and Brennan play the roles of fairytale princess and handsome prince well, their undoing and their reunion do not resonate deeply; they are simply the result of trickery and mistaken identity.
By contrast, Madden and Daniel play Beatrice and Benedick as reluctant lovers who use cleverness to cover the hearts they wear on their sleeves. Instead of being merely a foolish braggart, Daniel's Benedick uses his bluster to disguise his earnest affection, woefully unsure of his footing in the arena of love (literally, to great comic effect). Likewise, Madden's Beatrice harbors a deep longing for Benedick in between her sarcastic, scathing lines. Their love story is enormously compelling, in part because of the clumsy, awkward ways they reveal it to each other, encouraged by their friends and family.
Madden and Daniel are masterful in their roles, delivering jibes with breezy intelligence one minute, struggling to cover their insecurity in love the next, and then passionately defending Hero's honor. That they can each communicate such a wide range of intensity and emotion with a look is simply stunning to watch.
Mani's Leonato has the difficult task of retaining the audience's sympathy while berating his daughter for the shame she has brought on him, hurling insults at her and even wishing she were dead. Mani skillfully frames this reaction with his intense love for his daughter and his heartbreak at the situation.
As the bumbling constable Dogberry, the leader of the hapless country folk who comprise the night watch, James Pickering steals each of his scenes. His sincerity in mangling the language of his office and his insistence to "write me down an ass" was pitch perfect and hilarious.
Marcus Truschinski roundly upstages his moody master Don John as the malicious (then repentant) Borachio, who carries out the plot to wrongfully discredit Hero. Truschinski's criminal is not the accessory to an evil boss, but instead a clever mercenary, perhaps influenced too much by his ever-present bottle of alcohol. With long, unkempt hair and flexible morals, he creates a character that is infinitely more interesting Parks' sullen malcontent.
It is no surprise that this comedy ends with true identities revealed, dancing, the promise of a double wedding and the apprehension of the villains. The surprise rests in the depth of emotion that two unlikely lovers can evoke, and the substance that is revealed in a play that promises "nothing."