By the time Shakespeare wrote Much Ado About Nothing, he must've needed a break. He was just coming off four years of downers (The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, King Henry IV, King Henry V, King John), and the playful sex comedy reads like a writer trying to unwind. The central plots are goofy and the villain is just a crab apple with no darker purpose. The edifice seems built as an excuse for its ornamental flourishes: a witty man (Benedick) and a wittier woman (Beatrice) insulting each other while secretly falling in love.
Much Ado is a summery play about a company of soldiers—costumed in this production like Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders—passing an idle month in the town of Messina, where they dance and woo and make trouble. It's an excellent choice for Shakespeare in the park, boisterous and silly with no serious soliloquies that could be derailed by a wayward toddler waddling across the stage. Veteran director Sheila Daniels understands this and aces the casting with Amy Thone and Hans Altwies—a real-life married couple—playing the petulant lovers.
As an actor, Altwies is both brainy and hunky. When he speaks, he's as grounded as a lightning rod (he recently transfixed the cavernous theater at Seattle Rep in the solo show An Iliad), and nobody slips more lithely across a stage (his Mercutio in a 2005 Romeo and Juliet wholly earned the character's nickname: "king of cats"). Thone's stage presence, on the other hand, is almost too regal. She killed as King John a few years ago but couldn't quite pull off a ditzy, distracted mother in On the Nature of Dust (a new play by Stephanie Timm) earlier this year. Obviously too smart for the character, she struggled mightily to play dumb.
But she was built for Beatrice, a woman approaching spinster age because she's too clever for her suitors—including Benedick, who can just barely keep up:
Benedick: It is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart; for, truly, I love none.
Beatrice: A dear happiness to women: they would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humour for that: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.
Benedick: God keep your ladyship still in that mind so some gentleman or other shall 'scape a predestinate scratched face.
Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse, an 'twere such a face as yours were.
Benedick escapes from this opening set of tennis by slipping in a last word before saying "I have done" and walking away. "You always end with a jade's trick," Thone says, slightly crestfallen. "I know you of old." (Beatrice does know Benedick of old—the script hints at a previous dalliance that left them both feeling sour.)
Meanwhile, the other characters make their white noise. The sincere soldier Claudio (Michael Place) falls for sweet young thing Hero (Brenda Joyner). The bilious bad guy Don John (Tim Gouran) resolves to wreck the engagement by convincing Claudio that Hero is not a virgin, turning the young man into a drama queen. He throws an embarrassing fit at his wedding before a goofy local constable uncovers Don John's plot in a doofus ex machina. The audience twiddles its thumbs and waits for B&B to wisecrack themselves toward the altar. Benedick: "Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity." Beatrice: "I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption." (Benedick, as usual, cheats to get the last word: "Come, I will stop your mouth," followed by a kiss. Beatrice is silent for the rest of the play.)
The most engaging thing about Claudio and Hero's more central—and jejune—love story is its hints that Shakespeare thought virginity was overrated. Claudio's jealous histrionics are unbecoming—and nothing was Elizabethan slang for vagina. "As Shakespeare's title ironically acknowledges," Gordon Williams writes in Shakespeare's Sexual Language, "both vagina and virginity are a nothing causing Much Ado."
But Daniels has wisely edited the play to allow Beatrice and Benedick maximum stage time and impact. In one piece of inspired directing, Daniels splices together two comic sequences—in one, Hero and the rest of the girls let Beatrice overhear them talking about Benedick's affections; in another, Claudio and the boys do the same to Benedick—into one long slapstick routine. The lovers creep behind clotheslines, under benches and rowboats, over an arbor, and nearly over each other to eavesdrop on their snickering friends.
That bit is a masterpiece of populist Shakespeare-in-the-park staging. At the performance I attended, little kids howled as loudly as the adults, and their laughter drowned out the scene's language. Which is just fine. Summer-park Shakespeare should favor entertainment over edification—and, anyway, Benedick and Beatrice get the best lines.