MUTUAL MISMATCH Khoshatefeh and Burnap. [Photo by William Hicks]
Shakespeare may have named this comedy Much Ado About Nothing, but he did so with a wink. Finding true love and consequent happiness is very much something to the four lovers with their future at stake here, though we are invited to look upon the ensuing mayhem with bemused superiority.
The University of Rhode Island Theatre is putting some of the Bard's favorite characters through their paces with determined affection, directed by Bryna Wortman (through April 28). We get villainy as well as heroics, and wordplay instead of swordplay.
There is some farcical comic relief to heighten the overall amusing tone, and happy ending assurance. Audiences familiar with this perennial classic might find this rendition somewhat deflated, but some of the central characters do breathe life into the proceedings.
Setting Shakespeare's scenarios in odd places is a common practice, but here is a bit of a stretch. The red military uniforms of the men with swords at their sides are explained, when we flip through the program, by the play taking place in 1898, after Spanish-American War troops returned from their victory in Cuba "ready for relaxation and romance."
Things open in Messina, in the opulent courtyard where, with minor drop-down scenery adjustments for setting, most of the action takes place. The governor, Leonato (Benjamin Hill), is greeting the Spanish Prince Don Pedro (Marc Tiberiis II) and two of his officers, Claudio (Benjamin Miller) and Benedick (Andrew Burnap). Claudio had been fond of Leonardo's daughter Hero (Alex Maynard) and now tumbles fully into love, declaring to his friend that he is going to pursue her. For his part, Benedick declares that he intends to live forever as a bachelor.
Hah! The heart and soul and funny bone of this comedy is the interplay between him and Beatrice (Olivia Khoshatefeh), cousin and companion to Hero, whose sharp tongue immediately starts piercing the his ego. With Beatrice keeping up with him in their scenes, Burnap gives good exasperation as Benedick, never missing a comic beat. (Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Americo Lanni's energetic but rushed comical constable Dogberry, whose timing sometimes misfires his lines.)
At their first meeting, Benedick addresses Beatrice as "my dear Lady Disdain," but that suits her fine, as she declares, "I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me." The witty banter is good Shakespearean fun. (Benedick: "Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher." Beatrice: "A bird of my time is better than a beast of yours.")
Their mutual mismatch tempts Don Pedro into some mischief, arranging for Benedick to overhear a trumped-up conversation about Beatrice supposedly being in love with him, Benedick. Since some women are in on the plot and do the same in Beatrice's earshot, saying how Benedick is in love with her, the plot is hatched.
But a simple practical joke isn't enough for the playwright. Don Pedro's malevolent half-brother Don John is resentful over being illegitimate, so he tells Claudio a lie. Don Pedro, he says, isn't just pretending as he woos Hero on his behalf, he actually wants her for himself. Unfortunately for Don John, the potentially ugly betrayal is quickly dismissed as a misunderstanding.