Much ado is rightly made about Shakespeare space


Washington -- When the Shakespeare Theatre produces "Much Ado About Nothing," much ado always seems to surround it.

In 1985, the much ado concerned the announcement that the Folger Shakespeare Library was withdrawing its support of the 15-year-old theater. This time around, the much ado concerns the theater's spanking new facility in the Lansburgh building at 450 Seventh St. N.W.

And though this latest production -- directed by Michael Kahn and starring Kelly McGillis -- is perfectly sound, it is justifiably overshadowed by the excitement of the new space, which, with 447 seats, has nearly twice the capacity of the Folger.

The exultation in the Lansburgh's considerably larger stage is evident in Derek McLane's expansive set, which includes not only an arbor, but also the corner of a two-story 19th century Sicilian villa that is big enough to subsequently reveal a portion of the cast seated at dinner inside.

In other words, there is an immediate feeling of abbondanza that is carried through the rest of the proceedings. Thanks in part to the updating, the production frequently has the look and gusto of a pasta sauce commercial (an impression reinforced by mandolin and accordion accompaniment). If there were such a thing as a "spaghetti Shakespeare," this would be it.

"Much Ado" is a play about romantic deception on several levels, and in this production, passion has an undeniably ethnic flavor. The chief romantic rivals, Beatrice and Benedict, are famed for their wit; they are often considered precursors of the sparring cerebral lovers in Shaw and Coward. But here, their skirmishes are physical as well as verbal.

When McGillis' Beatrice dances with David Selby's masked Benedict early on, she not only tweaks his pride, she deliberately trounces on his toes, leaving him limping in pain. If anything, Selby overdoes Benedict's physical clowning. When he is tricked into believing Beatrice loves him, he leaps about like a happy idiot.

Perhaps because of this odd blend of the physical and intellectual, the portrayals of Beatrice and Benedict are not the NTC high point of this production. Instead, its most admirable quality is the overall ensemble work, including Mark Philpot and Lisa Gay Hamilton as Claudio and Hero, the conventional young couple whose innocence and naivete make them foils to the more worldly Beatrice and Benedict, and especially Ted van Griethuysen as Hero's anguished father.

Needless to say, in this broadly comic interpretation, the bona fide buffoons -- Constable Dogberry and his befuddled town watch -- are in their element. With his bulbous nose, large jiggling hat and Tweedledum tummy, Floyd King's Dogberry is the funniest creature on stage.

In 1985, this theater set "Much Ado" on a cruise ship. For a while, it looked as if that might be a metaphor for a sinking theater. Seven years later, the Shakespeare Theatre is stronger than ever, and its new mooring suggests a future of abbondanza indeed.

"Much Ado About Nothing" continues at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington through April 12. Call (202) 393-2700.

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