There’s a great sense of vitality to Benedick’s and Beatrice’s sparring in Georgia Shakespeare‘s new production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” on stage through August 4. Actors Joe Knezevich and Courtney Patterson seem to pop out of the play they’re in as they tear each other apart. “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” Benedick says, and in this production the remark rings true. Their exuberance with smart, cutting wit readily and believably changes to exuberance in love: all it takes is one tiny push and the whole framework of passions shifts.
This wonderfully unpeaceable wooing has a lovely, peaceable setting. Kat Conley’s exterior of a Sicilian villa is appropriately sunny and blooming, with dangling vines and a gurgling fountain. A double staircase with several landings provides plenty of nooks and crannies for the action to unfold in, and they come in handy for all the eavesdropping scenes in “Much Ado.” Nearly every silly slapstick eavesdropping cliche that you’ve ever seen is trotted out: characters duck behind walls, hold potted plants in front of their heads, hide behind columns and coo like birds to cover accidental noises they’ve made. The familiar, usually groan-worthy gags are here surprisingly and slyly fun.
If Patterson’s Beatrice has a slight edge in the wit department (she gets the better of Benedick in several scenes), Knezevich answers it by having his Benedick become slightly more self-aware: he knows how ridiculous his sudden shift from confirmed bachelor to enkindled suitor is even while he makes it. “The world must be peopled!” is a flimsy excuse to change tracks, but he’ll use it anyway.
Handsome newcomer Maxim Gukhman as Don John seems to have taken the line “I am a plain-dealing villain” to heart, and he creates a sinister character who wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond film. There’s some interestingly weighty bitterness there, too — in a world of sunshine, wit and words, his stewing silence, slicked-back hair and sneer seem all the creepier.
The hero subplot of “Much Ado About Nothing” takes a serious, almost violent turn in the fourth act, and the supporting cast does a nice job of making the transition and unfolding this action. Allen O’Reilly as Lenato makes the shift from bumbling, friendly patriarch to terrifying, repudiating father. There’s a parallel savagery in Beatrice’s expression of her desire to become a man to avenge her beloved cousin. Things have suddenly gone very wrong all over, but the hurt of being confined to the limited possibilities for a woman back in the day is clearly something Beatrice has been nursing for a long time. Chris Kayser and the gang are charmingly clueless and self-important as the comic guards who finally set everything right.
There’s much ado here, but it’s certainly not about nothing. Georgia Shakespeare’s solid, clear, swiftly moving and thoroughly entertaining take on one of Shakespeare’s great plays is definitely something to see.