Outside a two-story country estate, two couples pledge their lifelong commitments to one another. The women stare into their lovers’ eyes and begin a dance of merriment. Friends and family join the festivities. Servants dance with their masters. Fathers dance with their daughters. Without a partner, the friar makes the best of his situation and breaks into the Charleston. Such is the perfect crescendo to Folger Theatre’s production “Much Ado About Nothing.”
With director Nick Hutchison’s clever staging of Shakespeare’s comedy, the audience fully engages with the actors and gleefully traipses down this bizarre road to happiness. Hutchison allows the characters to confront their relationship frustrations directly to audience members, often looking them directly in the eyes. But the actors never pull the audience out of the moment. Instead, Hutchison brilliantly manages these intimate conversations so that the characters lure the audience into this alternate reality, just in case Shakespeare’s wit isn’t enough.
In this late 16th century work, Shakespeare provides what some describe as “the perfect comedy.” A bitter onlooker’s scheme creates miscommunication between characters until someone unearths the truth and exposes the villain. It follows a simple formula, but Shakespeare sets numerous traps for the characters. The only safety is the audience’s knowledge that everything must end happily.
In an interesting twist, Hutchison sets the comedy in post-World War II England, at the country estate of Leonato (Timmy Ray James). Don Pedro (James Denvil) and his fellow American army officers celebrate victory amid big band music and a draping collection of stars and stripes and Union Jacks. Here, the true battle begins between the acid tongues of Leonato’s niece, Beatrice (Kate Eastwood Norris), and her former love, Benedick (P.J. Sosko). They deny their love of each other through a cold exterior of clever quips and insults. But as the love between Beatrice’s cousin, Hero (Tiffany Fillmore), and Benedick’s fellow officer Claudio (Dean Alai) falls apart, Beatrice and Benedick reluctantly reexamine their relationship and seek to quell their childish games.
Sosko and Norris each have the perfect amount of charm and mischievousness to allow the audience to pity their characters’ misfortunes in love. Their lack of hesitation in jabbing insults at each other and the audience is endearing. In a moment of desperation, Benedick describes to the audience the type of woman he seeks. He points to a female audience member and describes her as “fair.” Another, he describes as “wise.” When he looks for a “virtuous” female, he finds none. The audience chuckles happily, as the charismatic Benedick displays a delightful grin.
Much like Sosko’s Benedick, Norris’ Beatrice is feisty and curious. In a charming scene with Hero and her servant, Ursula (Beth Hylton), Beatrice runs around the stage and hides behind anything to eavesdrop on the two women as they discuss Benedick’s love for her. But Norris carries Beatrice with grace and pride. Her pitiful attempt to avoid being seen makes her denial of Benedick’s love of her that much more endearing.
Unlike a certain Shakespeare company in Washington, Hutchison makes Shakespeare’s work accessible. His characters are not talking heads, but fully realized characters. With a perfectly contemporary setting, perfectly charming actors, and perfectly fast-paced dialogue, Hutchison makes this outing with Shakespeare perfect.
“Much Ado About Nothing” will be at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. NE, until Nov. 27. Tickets are $25-$49 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (202) 544-7077 or going online at www.folger.edu.