- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

One thing is certain about the Washington Shakespeare Company's production of "Much Ado About Nothing": It keeps your attention.

If you attend this play at the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington, pack lightly. The performance does not remain confined to one room.

Although some theatergoers may be lured by the coverage leading man Andrew Sullivan received in the Talk of the Town section of the New Yorker, most will leave impressed by the production itself. Mr. Sullivan, a senior editor at the New Republic, plays Benedick.

Once you step into the theater, you are, immediately, in Messina, the Italian island where Shakespeare set this romantic comedy.

You hear the sound of semidistant surf and an occasional lazy violin in the lobby and in the theater. You go to the bathroom, and the ocean and sea gulls are there to cheer you on. There is no escaping this play.

Not that you would want to escape. Director Michael Comlish, a former WSC member visiting from New York City, has fashioned a traditionally fluffy play into a tragicomic semidream in which its characters strut and sweat with simmering energy, yet take themselves none too seriously.

Mr. Sullivan plays a muscular and intense version of Signor Benedick. While everyone else is tripping over their own smirks and glances thrown this way and that, Benedick broods over his inability to make sense of the fiery and antagonistic Beatrice, played passionately by Brook Butterworth.

While others slink from the stage through trapdoors, Mr. Sullivan's every step as Benedick is an act of power. He struts the stage like a stalking cat. He is, undoubtedly, the star.

He is concrete and real, somewhat stable for all his angst, in a world that shifts beneath his feet literally, because the stage slopes down toward the audience, giving one the feeling that cast and audience are sliding into each other.

Beatrice, drawn to Benedick's sturdiness by her own inherent strength of character, is a treat. The sparks between these two are what shine most brightly in this play.

Yet they are not the most entertaining. The real action of Mr. Comlish's play is in his interpretation of Prince Don Pedro and Christopher Henley's performance of that role.

Mr. Henley, WSC's artistic director, who plays both Don Pedro and his illegitimate twin, Don John, is the semicomic, semitragic genius of the performance. Don Pedro is constantly nervous. He becomes still only when he has a new plot to ponder.

He is a con artist so aware of his own illegitimacy (his crown is a ridiculous sliver of silver plastic wrapped around his head) that he overcompensates in everything he says, trying his hardest to look convincing.

Mr. Comlish has interpreted Don Pedro as being "much more twisted" than most people think. The director also has decided that Claudio and Hero are not as one-dimensional as you might think. He introduces a homoerotic relationship between Don Pedro and Claudio, played by Leo Wolfe.

Don Pedro is a clutching, smarmy pimp to Mr. Wolfe's Claudio, a clueless young man who doesn't seem to know what he wants. Whatever he wants, it isn't Hero.

When he is told that Hero, played by Grace Eboigbe, has been unfaithful, Claudio displays a distinct lack of disappointment. In fact, he becomes disappointed only when he learns that Leonato, governor of Messina, played garishly by Michael Miyazaki, has a niece whom he can marry. Claudio accepts Leonato's offer out of guilt over Hero and social obligation to be married to a woman, leaving the crushed Don Pedro to slink away, defeated.

Even the low points of the play are memorable. Mark Rhea as Constable Dogberry yells and shrieks lines that are hard to understand, yet he is hard to forget.

This performance of "Ado" is entertaining, outrageous and energetically acted.


***

WHAT: "Much Ado About Nothing"

WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

TICKETS: $20 to $30

PHONE: 703/418-4808 MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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