WOOING Estrella and Kane.
The Comedy of Errors? Ha. The Merry Wives of Windsor? Ha; ha. The funniest comedy to pour out of Shakespeare's quill, I'm convinced, is Much Ado About Nothing. No mistaken identities (well, one -- but a crucial and plausible one), no forest-flittering fairies, just systematically unfolding relationship confusions that even manage to turn deeply tragic, leaving a lingering bittersweet flavor.
The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is staging a definitive and uproarious version (through November 29). It's not only the best of many I've seen, but also one that solves some tricky scenes, under the direction of Fred Sullivan Jr., that rarely have worked for me in the past.
It's no longer in vogue to set Shakespeare's plays in different historical periods to gain fresh evocations, but the World War II American homefront works very well, and not just because the young men in Much Ado are spirited soldiers on leave from a successful battle. Thanks to Charles Cofone's swinging sound design, Marilyn Salvatore's exquisite costumes, and Sara Ossana's smart set design, we better understand the setting. The jitterbugging is great fun to watch, and the "hey-nonny-nonny" ditties that the groundlings liked to hear sound more natural to us as Andrews Sisters tunes.
The action revolves around two couples, in Messina, Sicily, all aristocrats. From the get-go, Claudio (Marc Dante Mancini) is smitten with the lovely Hero (Amanda Ruggiero). At the beginning, her friend and cousin Beatrice (Jeanine Kane), even more sharp-tongued than Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, enjoys humiliating Benedick (Tony Estrella), skewering him at every verbal swordplay opportunity. He is a good-natured young lord, reasonably witty, but he's no match for her. He makes much about intending to remain a bachelor, which is quite understandable whenever they face off.
Taking their exaggerated mutual animosity as a challenge, their friends play a trick on them. Within Benedick's hearing, Don Pedro and others discuss how Beatrice is in love with him, though too prideful to admit that. Likewise, her friends agree to perform the same charade. Of course, the two loosen up and, after further folderol, get together.
The villain in all of this is Don John. Quite a bastard, literally. As portrayed by Kelby T. Atkin, he is as chilling a presence just standing there emitting evil as Mancini's Claudio is seraphic in his glow of love. Shakespeare has Don John characterize himself wonderfully with his first words: "I thank you. I am not a man of many words, but I thank you." Neutral enough on their own, but coming after the clever banter of others, the words testify to a life soured by knowing he is inferior.
Don John is a royal, but illegitimately born, the brother of Don Pedro (Steve Kidd), who is Prince of Aragon and good friend to Benedick. Don John, with all but hand-rubbing glee, decides to ruin the wedding of Claudia and Hero by making it appear that a lover visits her bedchamber at night. That introduces matters like betrayal and even death, making this play resonate more fully than any other Shakespeare comedy.