Wishing for More

by Cary Mazer

Much Ado About Nothing

Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival, 2111 Sansom St., through May 30 215-569-9700

The first thing that the witty soldier Benedick says in the first scene of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is, characteristically, a witticism. In the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival's production directed by Carmen Khan, Benedick (Eric Van Wie) directs this witticism to his fellow soldiers. When they fail to find him funny, he turns to the audience, looks several of us directly in the eye, and invites us to laugh in their stead.

That just about sums up the production: amusing, eager to please and desperate for our good will.

This is the second time that the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival has produced Much Ado in the last three years (the last time was under the company's former name, The Red Heel Theatre Company), and it's interesting to see the similarities and differences between Khan's new version and Dominick Scudera's in 1996. Once again, there's a vaguely 19th-century Italian setting. Once again there's a terrace overhung with wisteria and a classical balustrade (though designers Tom Greenfield, Pete Jakubowski and Vickie Esposito have a bigger space to work with in the company's new home on Sansom Street and, I sense, a larger budget). Once again there's classical mandolin music plunking in the background. Once again pairs of characters are halved: Margaret (J. J. Van Name) does double duty for Ursula as companion to Hero (Kim Waldauer), and Boracchio (Tom Cleary) for Conrad as the henchman of Don John (Neill Hartley); the Friar (Jeb Kreager) acts as Messina's messenger and scribe; Leonato (Michael P. Toner) lacks a brother in whom to confide; and Dogberry (John Zak) has only Verges (Leonard Kelly) to serve as his entire constabulary.

But in this production the emotional balance of the play has shifted to the women. Of the play's principal couple, only Beatrice (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) seems to convey a sense of history - and deep injury - in her relationship with Benedick. When the two finally express their love for one another, the scene cooks; but before that there's little chemistry, or love, or risk, in their witty banter. And though Shakespeare gives the young count Claudio (Dito Van Reigersberg) many more words, he is far less emotionally convincing in his love, his sense of betrayal, and his eventual guilt and remorse than his wronged bride, Hero, is in her tearful silence.

There's a lovely, and inexplicable, moment early on in this production. When Don Pedro (Ralph Edmonds), Claudio and Leonato gather to fool Benedick into thinking that Beatrice loves him - set, unconventionally, at night, as though immediately following the masked ball at which Hero and Claudio become engaged - the three men stand for a moment in the moonlight, beneath the paper lanterns, listening to the mandolins, and silently contemplate some unspecified mystery.

What is it, I wonder? Perhaps, on that lovely terrace in that lovely night to the strains of that lovely music, they sense the play's emotional depths and dramaturgical balance escaping from them, just beyond their grasp.