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The Arts
July 25-August 1, 2007

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Touché: The verbal jousting gets pointed between Beatrice (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Benedick (Ian Merrill Peakes) in 'Much Ado About Nothing.'

Just Enough Ado

Not too jarring, not too tame, Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Much Ado About Nothing' strikes the perfect comic note

By Jean Stirling

A Mediterranean villa sits in the palm of the wooded glen, its wrought-iron gates guarding imposing double doors. As a voluble audience fills UCSC's Festival Glen, this waiting stage offers the first clues to the perennial game of "Guess What Era" will be the setting for Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 2007 production of Much Ado About Nothing. It's a locals' game.

Newcomers might be forgiven for being taken by surprise by the social nature of the picnicking playgoers not only slicing fire-roasted peppers over pasta salads and sharing wine by the bottle, but also, more profoundly, holding on together for the sudden jolt of the time machine as they prepare to meet old Shakespeare in a new setting. Much of the fun of seeing the Bard in the hands of the Beard (respectful obeisances to artistic director Paul Whitworth) is discovering where the time machine has landed.

The villa is wrapped in clotheslines, draped in bedsheets. As the play begins, the stairs and courtyard are filled by washer-maidens of a strange derivation. They're doing a charming little washerwomen dance, wearing knee-length dresses with copious petticoats. When and where are they from? We learn quickly not to care; here we are in a town called Messina, and the boss man's on the balcony.

Leonato (Kenneth Albers), the silver-haired governor, is a benevolent figure, garbed in a silky modern plantation suit tailored beautifully for his big frame. This is his villa, and most of the people we're about to meet are his subjects. Out of the chattering, fluttering company steps a chic woman in a Laura Ashley–esque sheath. She is Beatrice (Kate Eastwood Norris), Leonato's niece, voicing a wit as dry and modern as a prime-time sitcom princess. She and her uncle and cousin, Hero (Barbara Suiter), receive a messenger who announces that Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and his noble companions are returning triumphant from war. When Beatrice asks if Signore Benedick of Padua is among them, it is clear that there has been a longstanding battle of wits between the two. "In our last conflict, four of his five wits went halting off," she brags, "and now is the whole man governed with one."

When Benedick (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Beatrice meet, the verbal swordplay is as vigorous as the chemistry is potent. "What, my dear Lady Distain! Are you yet living?" says Benedick when first he sees her.Benedick is a man's man, noble, funny and athletic. He accompanies the prince, Don Pedro (Mike Ryan), along with the handsome Claudio (Cody Nickell) and Don Pedro's bastard brother, a glowering Don John (Alvaro Mendoza). With their arrival, all the major characters are accounted for; their roles and relationships provide the grist for the story.

Oh, how a military man pleases Shakespeare Santa Cruz! SSC rarely passes up an opportunity to stud up the men of the production in close-fitting brass-buttoned jackets, gabardine jodhpurs and hats with gewgaws. All the eligible young men of this play are soldiers; their military status provides several opportunities for lighthearted macho hijinks and the baring of buffed chests.

Shakespeare's story is a simple comic tale of this macho male companionship giving way to peacetime activities, romance blooming for young lovers, pointless troublemaking by the evil Don John, love lost to several complicated deceptions and of course love triumphant. In the course of all this silliness, every character overflows with bons mots.

"How tartly that gentleman looks! I never can see him but I am heart-burned an hour after," says Beatrice of Don John. Norris' Beatrice is full of jibes at everyone's expense, yet essentially merry and goodhearted. She delivers the quick quips in antique English with such clarity that she is easily understood. Peakes' hunky Benedick wields a hearty physicality and masterfully creates his comically poignant heel-dragging suitor. The sparks fly convincingly between these two in their early competition for witty put-downs, and it is only they who seem unaware that their connection is one of powerful attraction. Ryan and Nickell perform their roles with gusto. Shakespeare has of course woven into the plot several satisfying slapstick sorbets, and director Kim Rubinstein takes full advantage of these. Indeed the play is about nothing much, but Shakespeare Santa Cruz serves it with appropriate ado: a delightful feast.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING plays in the Festival Glen at UCSC through Sept. 2. $26–$40. (831.459.2159)

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