- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Playing peekaboo with the region’s capricious thunderstorms, the Bard of Avon returned to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre last weekend with the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Tickets don’t cost a dime because this production is the company’s annual “free for all” offering to the Washington public. Initially staged in 2002, this incarnation is directed by P.J. Paparelli.

“Much Ado” is nominally the comedic love story of Claudio, an officer in Prince Don Pedro’s army, and Hero, the blushing young daughter of Leonato, the governor of Messina. Because of a suggestive pantomime underwritten by the nasty Don John, the Prince’s brother, Claudio unfairly turns on Hero on their wedding day, causing disgrace and disaster for all, before the obligatory happy ending.

The interest in this play usually turns on its subplot — the running battle of wits between Beatrice, Leonato’s feisty and happily single niece, and Benedick, a wisecracking officer and confirmed bachelor who is Claudio’s friend and a favorite of the prince. Beatrice and Benedick get most of the good lines in the play, and their verbal jousts have tickled audiences for centuries.

Set with surprising graciousness as a kind of 1920s lawn party, this production doesn’t quite seem to catch fire, at least not to the extent of last summer’s stunning “Hamlet.” Nevertheless, it’s amusing enough to be a pleasant summer evening’s entertainment — and the price is right.

The company is fortunate to have, as Beatrice and Benedick, two players who inhabit their roles with relish. Casey Biggs’ booming Benedick is impetuous and self-consciously witty, yet capable of great introspection. His grand, demonstrative body language really carries the play along, particularly in this huge outdoor setting, where the bleacher seats don’t get a good view of the actors’ facial expressions.

Sabrina Le Beauf successfully interprets Beatrice as a 20th-century feminist — at least as far as Shakespeare’s language will permit. Bright, attractive and extravagant, her Beatrice is in all respects a startlingly modern woman, quite a contrast to the hapless and helpless Hero.

Even better, the chemistry between Miss Le Beauf and Mr. Biggs crackles, breathing life into a production that frequently needs a lift.

The rest of the cast does well, but they don’t flesh out their characters the way Mr. Biggs and Miss Le Beauf do. Dana Slamp as Hero and Bill Thompson as Claudio experienced difficulty making their on-again, off-again nuptials seem convincing. Part of this, no doubt, is because of the sparse dialogue the Bard gives them. Additionally, though, the passion between them never seemed to ignite fully.

Dead-on comic timing seemed to elude longtime regular cast member Floyd King as the grammatically challenged Constable Dogberry. As delivered by Mr. King, Dogberry’s clever fusillades of malapropisms — so necessary for defusing the near-tragic tensions of the play’s second half — frequently were lost on the audience.

Last Friday’s performance was marred for some by a significant cadre of unruly children in the audience who would rather have been sleeping or playing Nintendo. Parents, if you can’t or won’t control the little “darlings,” please leave them home.

**

WHO: The Shakespeare Theatre

WHAT: Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

WHERE: Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., through Sunday

TICKETS: Free tickets are available the day of the performance at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh Street NW and at other locations.

INFORMATION: For more information and details, see www.shakespearetheatre.org

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