Life is full of contradictions. Teachers tell their students not to lie, then, at some point, they hand them Shakespeare's plays, which are so filled with lies and counterfeits of various sorts that the mind boggles.
So it is with the beloved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, now at the Great Lakes Theater. You'd be hard pressed to find a single character who isn't lying in this laugh-filled romp, presented with lively energy and dialogue delivered with plenty of snap and crackle.
Indeed, the comic momentum established by the players under Sharon Ott's pneumatic direction almost hides a hollow spot at the core of this effort that would severely dent a less captivating production.
Returning warrior lords Benedick and Claudio, in service to Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, seek some female companionship in Messina. Claudio (an earnestly naive Neil Brookshire) is attracted to the demure Hero (Betsy Mugavero), daughter of Messina's Governor Leonato (David McCann), but confirmed bachelor Benedick has a much more fraught relationship with Leonato's niece, the spitfire Beatrice.
All this is pure fun for Don Pedro, who loves playing Cupid, so he devises a scheme to bring oil and water, er, Benedick and Beatrice together. This is where the deceptions start, as various characters are tasked to lie about Benedick's love for Beatrice and vice versa, within earshot of each, so their heads might be turned towards romance.
Darker skullduggery is also in play as Don John (Juan Rivera Lebron), Don Pedro's bastard brother, plots to ruin his brother's frolics by falsely besmirching the reputation of Hero and ending her storybook love affair with Don Pedro's favored lord Claudio.
The gullible Claudio and honor-obsessed Don Pedro are taken in, until they see the light and yet another deception is launched to bring forth a happy resolution.
As Beatrice, Cassandra Bissell is thoroughly believable, and immensely funny, as this sharp-edged, independent woman ("I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.").
She is matched snark-for-snark by J. Todd Adams as Benedick ("I wish my horse had the speed of your tongue."), a man so supremely confident—well, he can stop the birds chirping with a sharp glance—that he feels himself impervious to the vulnerabilities of love.
Excellent as they are individually, one never quite gets the sense of Bissell's Beatrice and Adams' Benedick aching with love for each other beneath their surface jousting. This kind of chemistry is devilishly hard to capture on stage, and perhaps it will grow as the show's run progresses.
In addition to those mentioned above, there are other fine performances in support of our two battling lovebirds. David Anthony Smith makes Don Pedro an appealing and enthusiastic matchmaker, and Laurie Brimingham has a couple stellar moments as both Antonia, the feisty wife of Leonato, and as a sexton.
Of course, Shakespeare always makes room for the clowns in his comedies and here they are represented by the Keystone Kops, which is appropriate since the play is set in the 1920s. Constable Dogberry and his assistant Verges arrive on a tricycle equipped with flip-chart visual aids for their scene.
As Dogberry, Dougfred Miller nicely channels George C. Scott (circa Dr. Strangelove), blustering amusingly as he grapples with multiple malapropisms. And M.A. Taylor as Verges once again shuffles and slouches his way through another part as an I.Q.-deficient lowlife.
This is a fast-paced show that's quite pleasing to the eye, thanks to Hugh Landwehr's handsome set accented with copper mesh foliage and Esther M. Haberlen's lush period costumes.
Thanks to Ott's clever and precise direction, there's not a whit of deception in saying that this is a most entertaining way to spend upwards of 2½ hours.