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Sizzlin’ Sicilians: Dadd and Saturno in Much Ado.

Send Home the Clowns
By James Yeara

Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare, directed by Daniela Varon

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 31

The moment Balthasar (Daniel J. Sherman) stands on the balcony and sings “Strangers in the Night” in Italian to the screaming, cooing Beatrice (Paula Langton), Hero (Stephanie Dodd), Ursula (Lane Whittemore) and Margaret (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) on the palazzo’s white marble floor below, Shakespeare & Company’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing becomes much more than excellent. Set in Sicily in the 1950s, costumed with opulent Godfather chic and the colors of Italian ice, and enhanced with the addition of Italian folk music and ’50s pop crooning, director Daniela Varon’s version is much more than delightful.

This very Sicilian tale of battling wits Beatrice and Benedick (the dyed and goateed Allyn Burrows, adding yet another stellar performance to his impressive résumé) could easily be titled My Big Fat Italian Wedding or The Talented Mr. Benedick. The cast glows, the set glimmers, and the music makes the ears gleam. Performed in the arena-seating configuration of the Founders’ Theatre, this Much Ado About Nothing winningly combines the intimacy of the former Stables Theatre and the almost-cinematic quality of the Mainstage at the Mount.

Varon’s setting of Much Ado in the Mafia-controlled Sicily of 1950 brings out the masculine concern over honor that is vital to the plot, and allows the humor and passion of the characters to spill forth in inspired ways. When Don Pedro (Jonathan Croy) and his lieutenants Claudio (Mark Saturno) and Benedick initially charge the stage—sawed-off shotguns slung across the shoulders of their three-piece suits, fedoras rakishly angled—the machismo factor rises. These are very much men, among very womanly females.

As the wooing begins, the words flow like vino. It’s little wonder the women swoon; it’s less wonder the men pursue so ardently. In finest Shakespeare & Co. tradition, the actors own not only the stage, but the theater, using the café table and chairs, upstage fountain, stools, onstage laundry lines, and the seats in the audience—not to mention the audience members themselves—as pliable extensions of their own bodies. This cast never met a prop, animate or inanimate, it didn’t like. Much Ado About Nothing is as much fun to watch as it is to hear.

The women in Varon’s Ado are especially strong. Paula Langton’s Beatrice fills the stage, warring with words as Benedick’s more-than equal in most scenes. She couples a man-eating grin with a rapacious over-the-sunglasses-come-hither gaze to make Benedick’s leg shake, all without saying a word. And when Beatrice famously commands Benedick to “Kill Claudio,” she is so present, so vital, that you wonder how Benedick could refuse this woman anything. Stephanie Dodd brings forth not just the ingénue in Hero but the tease during her “gulling” of Beatrice, and Elizabeth Aspenlieder creates the serving woman Margaret as a first-class working-class coquette. With its cast of equals, this production is much more than the sum of its parts, even given the excellence of those parts.

But when the running time moves past three hours, I vainly hoped someone would remember that the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, a longer play than Much Ado, announced its running time (“the two hours traffic of our stage”). This production becomes too much ado about comedic contrivances. The pace, pleasure, wit, and verve of the first hour and 45 minutes get smothered in the contrapuntal slow riffs of Dogberry (Jonathan Epstein) and his antic constables. The brilliance of the director’s concept, the fashion of the costuming, delight of the dances, the subtleties and energy of the performances—the most equally excellent cast in years at Shakespeare & Company—are halted by the gratuitous lazzi (Italian for improvised foolery) of the quintet of clowns: It’s like getting stuck behind someone driving a classic automobile 20 miles under the speed limit.

So, while you want to admire the antiquities of a bygone era, especially if the car is driven by Don Corelone, you’ve also enjoyed the racing pulse of driving beyond the speed limit, your mate clutching you tightly. Suiting the action to the words is one thing; leisurely gussying up the action in a tux to go skinny dipping is an act of self-indulgence. Sometimes you can get too much ado, and it becomes about nothing but tedium. It’s a joy to laugh at a comedy at Shakespeare & Company (one that isn’t supposed to be a tragedy), but this is the first Much Ado About Nothing that I’ve seen wherein I wanted more Claudio and Hero and less Dogberry and clowns.

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