Much Ado About Nothing

The Red Heel Theatre at Walnut Street Theatre, Studio Three, 9th and Walnut Sts., through June 30, 893-1145.

There are advantages and disadvantages to staging a large Shakespeare play -- even a modest-sized domestic comedy like Much Ado About Nothing -- in a small theater.

It doesn't make it easy to play comedy. And in the Red Heel Theatre's Much Ado, much of the comedy is played too broadly. The size of the Walnut Studio doesn't help the sightlines either, especially from the side seats: even with the cast of characters pared down to a bare minimum, director Dominick Scudera still runs into some major traffic problems.

But the size of the theater actually works to the play's, and the production's, advantage in the more serious twists and turns of the plot.

It's always struck me as odd that the pivotal event of the play -- the event that suddenly turns the play from a light romantic comedy into what might become a tragedy of life and death -- happens offstage, unseen by the audience.

Claudio (Trevor Davis) is set to marry Hero (Heather Stuart). Don John (John Elliott Kirk), the bastard brother of Claudio's friend and patron Don Pedro (Christopher Cline), is so determined to thwart his brother that he brings Claudio and Don John to Hero's window the night before the wedding, where Don John's confederate Borachio (David Disbrow) is seducing Hero's maid Margaret (Hannah Dalton). Claudio mistakes Margaret for his fiancee, and is thereby led to believe that she has sexually betrayed him the night before their wedding.

It's hard to believe that Claudio could be so taken in. It's even harder to believe because we, the audience, never see what Claudio and Don Pedro see so inaccurately. The scene at Hero's window is plotted and described, but never actually shown. We, like Claudio, are asked to take it on faith.

But from our seats only a few feet away from the actors on the tiny Walnut Studio stage, we can look right into their eyes and see what the characters do and don't see.

In Davis' open expressive features, we see the sequence of love, betrayal, love, betrayal, guilt and despair Claudio feels about his beloved Hero. When Hero's father Leonato (James F. Schlatter) starts to believe the accusations, we see him stare his daughter in the face, unwilling to believe what he is hearing, unable not to believe it, unable to stand the disgrace his daughter has brought him, unable to look into her eyes without a murderous rage.

Our ability to see what the characters believe (or can't bring themselves to disbelieve) also works well with the main comic plot of the play: the courtship of Beatrice (Carmen Khan) and Benedick (David Ingram). When Benedick ruminates about never marrying, we can see in Ingram's eyes that he actually might consider it. And when Leonato, Don Pedro and Claudio let him mistakenly believe that Beatrice is in love with him, we see that he already wants to believe it. We see this in Beatrice as well in her corresponding scene, though Khan doesn't let us look into her heart the way Ingram does.

Ingram (a Philadelphia treasure) and Khan do capture the wit of their roles. And the production is stylish, with a lovely Italianate set by Tom Greenfield, atmospheric lighting by Erik Rehl, and Napoleonic-era costumes by Janus Stefanowicz. The Red Heel Theatre has certainly increased its level of professionalism since Khan took over as artistic director two years ago, during which time three of their four productions have been directed by Scudera.

-- Cary M. Mazer