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Burning Coal's Much Ado About Nothing 

The romantics

click to enlarge Catori Swann, Emilie Stark-Menneg and Jason Mark Durst as "The Watch" in "Much Ado About Nothing" - PHOTO BY RIGHT IMAGE PHOTOGRAPHY INC.

Much Ado About Nothing

Burning Coal Theatre
Through Dec. 20

Burning Coal's Much Ado About Nothing is a stylish, if at times eccentric, take on one of Shakespeare's lesser-known but more rewarding comedies about the battles of true courtship.

Those fatigued from the less-than-feminist conclusions of the too-often staged Taming of the Shrew will find at least a partial antidote here in Shakespeare's more even-handed approach to the romantic skirmishes of the sharp-witted Beatrice, niece of the region's governor, and Benedick, a young lord recently returned from a military excursion with his prince, Don Pedro.

Under Emily Ranii's discerning direction, Jenn Suchanec and James Anderson's verbal swordplay as the couple in question puts the spark in Nothing's sparkling repartee, and the pair is surrounded by actors who are as nimble in negotiating Shakespeare's Elizabethan badinage. William Byrd Wilkins cuts a striking and at times imposing figure as Leonato, the governor, but rarely does he shine brighter than during the sequence where he, Mark Filiaci's Don Pedro and Jason Durst's lovestruck soldier Claudio comically conspire to convince Benedick that Beatrice (who has not expressed any such opinion) actually loves him madly.

There would be no dramatic tension if the two loves depicted here weren't threatened in some way. Catori Swann makes a convincing heavy as Don John, Pedro's illegitimate brother, while guest artist Lori Mahl lends wicked wit to his evil henchman, Borachio. Their machinations cause Leonato's sweet geek daughter, Hero (Emilie Stark-Menneg) to be unjustly accused, a device that provokes a showstopper: Beatrice's impassioned, furious exchange with Benedick in the first scene of Act IV.

But all the while, Kelly Farrow's erratic costumes hint that matters may be less serious than they seem. Filiaci's Don Pedro manifests first in military dress blues and white gloves—while barefoot—and Durst's triumphant young soldier Claudio seems garbed in an oversize Boy Scout uniform. The band of fools of the prince's watch are done up in Dickies bedizened with musical instruments and other utility-belt accoutrements. These and others trod E. D. Intemann's tasteful staging ground, which suggests an cherrywood deck whose vivid blue pool at center is offset at the corners by four gently lit squares filled with sand.

The only jarring note in this production involves Durst and Ranii's interpretation of Claudio. True, in Act I, Shakespeare himself notes his character "hath borne himself beyond the promise of his age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion." But here he comes off far too immature and whiney at the start, a Baby Huey of a child too prone to tantrum. Claudio grows a bit before the end, attenuating a character choice even more extreme than Jeff Aguiar's cross-gender—but poorly differentiated—handmaidens, and ultimately much less convincing. Thankfully, the delights in the rest of this production qualify Much Ado as one of the stronger shows of the season.

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