Shakespeare Theatre provides the perfect recipe for a summer evening’s entertainment
Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s best-loved comedies. Its main couple, Beatrice and Benedick, are the archetype of the made-for-each-other couple who cannot meet without a volley of put-downs and insults. They are surrounded with scheming servants, matchmaking friends and relatives, and a good prince and his evil brother. Mixed in with this are a malaprop-prone constable and his equally muddled watchmen. Put them all together on a stage out under the summer evening skies, and you have the perfect recipe for a summer evening’s entertainment.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents one production each season at the Greek Theatre, a classic outdoor amphitheater on the grounds of St. Elizabeth University in Convent Station. Much Ado About Nothing is this year’s production, and as is the case with many of the outdoor summer shows, it is a nearly-perfect evening at the theatre.
At an Italian estate, Leonato (Raphael Nash Thompson) is notified that the Prince of Messina, Don Pedro (James Michael Reilly), and his officers — including his right-hand men, Claudio (Christian Frost) and Benedick (Benjamin Eakeley), and his newly-reconciled brother Don John (Jeffrey Marc Alkins) — will be paying a visit on their way home from a recent war. This pleases Leonato and his daughter, Hero (Fiona Robberson), who is attracted to Claudio. It does not please Beatrice (Jesmille Darbouze), who is not looking forward to being near Benedick. Don John, for his part, still dislikes his brother and despises Claudio, and seeks to do them both a bad turn.
Don Pedro sets himself the task of pairing Beatrice with Benedick. He recruits Claudio and Leonato to help him convince Benedick, while Hero and her serving women Ursula (Carolyne Leys) and Margaret (Ellie Gossage) do the same to Beatrice until the over-rationalizing couple soon convince themselves that they love each other.
Claudio, backed up by Don Pedro, publicly humiliates Hero on their wedding day, having been misled by Don Juan. Word soon spreads that Hero has died from the slander, causing Claudio and the Prince to regret the result of their words.
Under the direction of Eleanor Holdridge, the actors are sharp and well-paced, handling Shakespeare’s wordplay and physical humor with equal skill. The interactions between Eakeley and Darbouze are a spoken word delight, and as they reluctantly fall in love you cannot help but be pulled into their newly-awakened feelings. Several actors in smaller parts have a chance to shine within the world of the play. Margaret Riley, as a serving woman, shows a gift for physical comedy as she is used by both Benedick and Beatrice as a convenient hiding place for eavesdropping. The sweet tenor of David Long III is put to good use, delivering the two songs within the play. Terra Chaney, Hannah Freund, and Henry Silberstein create laughs as the three night watch members, while Richard Bourg does double duty as Leonato’s feisty brother Antonio and Dogberry’s long-suffering assistant Verges. Finally, Jabari Carter’s Borachio is the perfect enabler for Don John’s plotting
The outstanding comic performance of the evening is Michael Stewart Allen’s Dogberry. From his malaprop-laden pronouncements to his reaction to events outside the “fourth wall”, he never fails to inspire laughter from the audience. Yet he is touching in a short speech, given as a soliloquy, in which we are allowed to see the man behind the buffoon — something I do not recall seeing in prior productions of this play.
This production of Much Ado About Nothing is one that I cannot praise more highly. The acting, the scenery, the costumes — everything about this show makes for a wondrous night in the theatre. You owe it to yourself to spend a lovely summer evening on the campus of St. Elizabeth University immersed in the world of Much Ado About Nothing!
Much Ado About Nothing is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the Greek Theatre on the campus of St. Elizabeth University in Convent Station through July 31st. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early and bring a picnic meal to enjoy on the lawn before the show. Patrons aged 17 or younger enter for free. The theatre does not require masks during the performance.