Benedick and Beatrice hate each other until they love each other. Claudio and Hero love each other until they hate each other. Don Pedro seems to love everyone. His brother, Don John, seems to hate everyone – particularly himself.
That’s the rough outline for Much Ado About Nothing, now playing at the Old Globe’s festival stage. This latest iteration is a more reserved take on Shakespeare’s comedy classic – quieter and less histrionic but still quite effective.
Don Pedro (Michael Boatman), Benedick (Michael Hayden) and Claudio (Carlos Angel-Barajas) have just returned to Messina from a successful military campaign. They are hosted by Leonato (René Thornton, Jr.), his daughter Hero (Morgan Taylor) and niece Beatrice (Sara Topham).
Benedick and Beatrice immediately begin their customary verbal jousting/foreplay while the younger Claudio and Hero simply fall in love. Don John (Manoel Feliciano) does everything within his power to thwart that love. No reason, he just wants to.
The interplay between Beatrice and Benedick makes or breaks this play and Topham and Hayden don’t disappoint. Their verbal slings and arrows are delivered with subdued moxie, and the transition from rivals to lovers is nicely done. The production moves a little too quickly through Benedick’s efforts to compose love poetry, but otherwise lets the couple shine. Thornton also gets high marks for his authoritative but gentle Leonato.
The main revelation in this production is Feliciano’s Don John, who is just a flat-out sociopath. Feliciano does a lot with his tiny role, creating a physical embodiment of evil that has rattled my brain for days. It’s as if his body can’t quite contain the anger and must secrete it in abrupt motions and hateful pronouncements.
But the ultimate in this stylized Much Ado is Dogberry (Fred Applegate). So often portrayed as militantly ignorant – think the drunk guy at the sports bar insisting Tom Brady is overrated – Applegate pushes a quieter, more restrained character. He is still arrogantly uninformed, but seems less pushy and more confused. Captain Kangaroo struggling with dementia.
The 1930s costumes work well and the villa and surrounding gardens are a nice setting for the various hijinks. Abigail Grace Allwein and James Michael McHale are excellent as strolling musicians, playing appropriate showtunes and the play’s signature song.
Marshall’s direction is more pastels than primary colors and highlights the story from a slightly shifted perspective. The play is funny and endearing and a worthy destination as we slip into September.