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'Much Ado' About Wit and Worry

[whitespace] Lisa A. Porter, Lise Bruneau and Ursula Meyer Up a Tree: Beatrice (Ursula Meyer) eavesdrops on Ursula (Lisa A. Porter, left) and Hero (Lise Bruneau, right) in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Much Ado About Nothing.'

Love hurts in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Much Ado About Nothing'

By Anne Gelhaus

SUBSTITUTE Iago and Emilia for Benedick and Beatrice, and Much Ado About Nothing could easily be mistaken for a tragedy. Instead, the play is Othello's comic foil: a darkly humorous look at what happens when jealousy and mistrust get the better of lovers.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz is staging both the comedy and the tragedy this summer, along with Beaumarchais' similarly themed The Marriage of Figaro. The company's production of Much Ado sets the tone for the season, emphasizing the parallels between Hero's and Desdemona's accusers, as well as the reactions of the men who profess to love them yet don't even question the accusations of infidelity.

The public denunciation by Claudio (Mike Ryan) of Hero (Lise Bruneau) on their wedding day is on the surface reprehensible, but director Richard Seer gives Claudio's allegiance a clearer context by emphasizing the play's wartime setting. The production takes place in Italy during WWI, when battlefield alliances translated into strong bonds between soldiers. Claudio's trust in the men he fought with makes him the perfect pawn in the plot by Don John (William Hulings) to usurp his brother, Don Pedro (Robert Jason Jackson).

On the lighter side of love and war are sparring partners Benedick (James Newcomb) and Beatrice (Ursula Meyer). Their ongoing battle of wits is fierce and funny, as are their friends' efforts to finally bring them together. The scene in which Claudio, Don Pedro and Leonato (François Giroday) make sure Benedick overhears them talking about Beatrice's love for him gives Newcomb a chance to flex his physical-comedy muscles.

But Ben and Bea also act as the play's moral compass, standing up for Hero at the risk of losing everything but each other. When the going gets serious, the couple passes the comic-relief mantle to David Eppel's Dogberry, appropriately outfitted as Napoleon (who's to say the little general wouldn't have been demoted to local constable if he'd lived that long?). Eppel is deft with Dogberry's penchant for malapropisms, and his character saves the day, not only by catching the bad guys but also by providing well-placed laughs.

The play's setting also helps keep things from becoming too somber, and as usual, the sun-dappled Festival Glen at UC-Santa Cruz adds to the ambiance. Yael Pardess has designed the set to resemble the patio room of Leonato's villa, creating a relaxed holiday atmosphere in which any soldier would gladly spend his leave. The party and wedding scenes are nicely choreographed by Mary Beth Cavanaugh, and Greg Coffin's musical score leaves no doubt that these are Italian celebrations, capiche?

Much Ado About Nothing is Shakespeare's most successful attempt at a tragicomic blend, full of passages and transitions that demonstrate a more mature understanding of how each of these elements is found in the other. He also created an artful balance of comedy and tragedy in his characters, imbuing most of them with a full range of emotions rather than a few pointed traits, as was often his wont in comedies.

The Shakespeare Santa Cruz cast maintains this equilibrium, delighting in love's folly one minute and despairing at its fickleness the next. Much Ado About Nothing lays the groundwork for Othello, which opens this weekend, showing love as a battlefield but opting for peaceful accord over bloodshed in the end.

Much Ado About Nothing plays in repertory through Sept. 6 at Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, UC-Santa Cruz. Tickets are $6-$26. (831/459-2159)

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From the July 30-Aug. 5, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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