Much Ado About Nothing at the Guthrie

Michael Brosilow

For all of its frivolity, the Guthrie Theater's latest production of Much Ado About Nothing is, at its heart, a drama. The most memorable moments come in the middle of Act Two, after groundless accusations have thrown the earlier happy mood into a tizzy. Claudio's lovesick desire for Hero is replaced by brutal accusations that render his lover speechless, and then apparently dead. In place of the razor-sharp banter between older could-be lovers Beatrice and Benedick comes an order to defend Hero's tarnished honor to the death.

It's not that the Joe Dowling-directed production hasn't been quite a bit of fun up to this point, it's that it finally, truly comes to life in these moments as the characters' hearts are revealed. On one side are Claudio (Bill McCallum) and Hero (Michelle O'Neill), who have felt the sting of Cupid's arrow and, apart from a bit of flirting, want nothing more than to get hitched. On the other end are the older Benedick (Daniel Gerroll) and Beatrice (Dearbhla Molloy), who seem to live to snipe at each other.

Is there a deeper love there? Well, maybe, but it's going to take the efforts of the entire cast to bring them together. During the show's first half, much of our attention is focused on the attempts to draw the pair of them together, but while these somewhat childish games are played in the governor's orange grove, darker plans are hatched in the city. The bastard brother of the prince, Don John, can't abide the love between Claudio and Hero and hatches a plan that will drive the two apart.

It works perfectly.

Modern eyes will wonder why Claudio is so quick to believe a confidence trick that later falls apart so easily and why he chooses the moment of the wedding to confront his apparent soul mate. It doesn't seem to be his fiery passion, as McCallum's Claudio is older and seemingly more world-weary and battle-tested than some callow youth. It's easier to see O'Neill's Hero collapse at the wedding, but would this version of the character be so ready to take back her lover after all the public accusations she had heard?

In the end, it's up to our older lovers to hold up the romantic side of the romantic comedy. Gerroll and Molloy are sharp from beginning to end, with their stinging barbs directed at each other, followed by the uneasy moments when they fall in love. It's the moments of drama that stay in the mind, like Gerroll's stiff-limbed walk to confront his friend and fellow officer Claudio, challenging him to a deadly duel that honor and his newfound love demand.

The balance of the company is strong from top to bottom. That includes Dennis Creaghan as Leonato, the governor who finds his family's honor threatened by Claudio's accusations, but who, unlike many a stately father in the past, isn't ready to abandon his daughter without discovering the truth. Ron Menzel adds oily charm to the sleazy Don John, aided by a similar turn from Bob Davis as his main henchman, Borachio. And Peter Michael Goetz gets to go all in with Dogberry, the barking (literally) constable whose, er, dogged work uncovers the truth and allows Hero's honor to be restored.

The Roaring '20s setting may help to underscore the nutty, Wodehouse-style twists of plot and characters, but it mainly provides an excuse for a crisp, clean set design from Riccardo Hernandez and sumptuous costumes from Fabio Tobllini.

Dowling directs with a steady hand, making the movements of the plot and developments of the characters clear for the audience. Though running nearly three hours, the action here rarely drags. The actors have more than enough room to develop their characters without wearing out their welcome. The bits of comedic business come off well, and even Dogberry and his misfit night-watch don't wear out their welcome, which is a danger anytime the fools show up in Shakespeare.

If Romeo and Juliet is like a romantic comedy until the death of Mercutio, then Much Ado About Nothing acts like a tragedy for much of its back half, only regaining its romance for its finale. It's a testament to the performers and production that the entire evening rolls with the punches, be it comic business with oranges in a grove, a pair of prickly rivals finding their hearts melting for each other, or a heated confrontation that should kill love dead for all involved.

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