When done well, William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is at once a briskly flowing romantic comedy, and a serious consideration of several kinds of love and loyalty. It should have you laughing often, and crying a little, as it carries you down the riffles and eddies of its delicious repartee. Under Emily Ranii’s confident, imaginative direction, the new production at Burning Coal Theatre Company does just that.
She has set her timeless, universal tale of would-be lovers Benedick and Beatrice, and Claudio and Hero, fully in the round, in a simple anachronistic nowhere. They cavort on a low platform with a central square pool of water, and square corner wells filled with rice. This spare, elegant set by E.D. Intemann is brought to life by his excellent lighting (look up into the grid to see how much equipment such apparent simplicity requires), and its fertility symbolism quietly reinforces Benedick’s cry that “the world must be peopled!” When needed, the actors carry on straight chairs; they are the extent of the trappings — other than Kelly Farrow’s strange, funny, and unforgettable costumes. All else is lush language, sweet acting, and a kind of movement that it is tempting to call choreography rather than staging.
The play’s pizzazz depends upon the sizzle between Benedick and Beatrice, whose “merry war” is conducted with zinging verbal darts. Jenn Suchanec, with her rich voice, lovely elocution, and sassy attitude, gives a completely charming performance as the happy Beatrice, and a blood-boiling one as the Beatrice who would avenge her slandered cousin Hero. James Anderson as Benedick is right there with her. His interpretation is very interesting. He plays Benedick as much less of a strutting cockerel than you often see — though he does think highly of himself — and this moderation of the macho makes his uncertainties during his conversion to lover from combatant more believable.
Emilie Stark-Menneg as Hero brings to mind the great Raymond Chandler description, “cute as lace pants.” She is adorable in her purple leotard and leggings, with a white frill of tutu above her long white-sheathed legs. All this cuteness cannot mask the powerful actress, however; and she shows astonishing range as the playful girl, the blushing virgin, the wronged maiden, and the forgiving, reconstituted woman.
Also showing surprising range is Jeff Aguiar, who recently made his Triangle stage debut in army fatigues in Manbites Dog Theater’s Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders. Here he plays two female roles — the maids Margaret and Ursula — and the constable Verges. He is even funnier as Margaret than as Verges, if you can imagine, partly thanks to his marvelous pink costume as the maid. As Verges, he is half of the comic duo that mocks the mysterious ways of justice, and sidekick to the goofy Dogberry, with his mangled meanings and immortal line: “Write it down: I am an ass!” Julie Oliver is hilarious in this absurd role.
I could go on to name and praise each cast member, but it would be much easier for you to go and see for yourself yet another example of the tremendous theatrical talent in the Triangle. As it happens, I had seen just one week earlier another production of Much Ado, at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, directed by Timothy Douglas, the roving regional star who directed Pride and Prejudice at PlayMakers Repertory Company last year. Although they do share some approaches to the material, that production was not nearly as well thought-out, produced, or acted as this Burning Coal version — it was less satisfying (Dogberry got nary a laugh) and cost three times as much. If you need another reason to buy local, this Much Ado is it. Laugh for less while lounging in the lap of luxuriant language.
Burning Coal’s Much Ado About Nothing continues in the Meymandi Theatre at the Murphey School through Dec. 20th. See our theatre calendar for details.