In ‘Much Ado,’ All’s Fair in Love and War

Posted October 24, 2005 at 4:30pm

From the opening shot of jet engines and Churchillian V-E Day oratory to the jitter-bugging finale (replete with boogying friar), it’s abundantly clear that the Folger Theatre’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which runs through Nov. 27, is no ordinary production.

Set in the days following the Allied victory in Europe at the English country house of Leonato (Timmy Ray James), this take on Shakespeare’s play practically pullulates with post-World War II vim and insouciance — helped along by ample doses of swing music and era-appropriate dress and mannerisms.

In director Nick Hutchison’s interpretation, the conquering heroes — Don Pedro (James Denvil), Claudio (Dean Alai) and Benedick (P.J. Sosko) — are American officers. Fresh off their military triumph, the trio arrive at the estate sporting wide-legged pants, holsters, bomber jackets and plenty of John Wayne swagger.

One thing leads to another, and it isn’t long before Claudio and Benedick are both embroiled in messy mating dances — the two men are respectively smitten by Leonato’s daughter Hero (Tiffany Fillmore) and Hero’s sharp-tongued cousin, Beatrice (Kate Eastwood Norris).

But before the two couples can live happily ever after — and you know from Shakespearean comedy 101 that they must — the lovebirds are subject to plenty of external manipulation, both good and bad, from friends and enemies.

As the vulpine Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro who conspires to break up the happy union of Claudio and his pretty Hero, Jim Jorgensen, appropriately turned out in a black gangster suit, is the very epitome of evil. Meanwhile, Jim Zidar’s Dogberry, the puffed-up local constable, is the ever-humorous British bombast, marching his ragtag band of watchmen around the stage with an air of clueless self-importance.

Though the supporting cast is uniformly strong — there really aren’t any weak links to speak of — Sosko and Norris steal the show with near virtuoso performances.

Sosko, who physically and verbally darts about with the agility of a prize fighter (at one point hanging monkey-like from a beam), is a firecracker of an actor, literally and figuratively running circles around everyone else on stage.

Meanwhile, Norris’ Beatrice is a self-possessed, stiff-upper-lip English woman of a certain age — it helps that the actress bears an uncanny resemblance to Emma Thompson, who played the same role in ex-husband Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film — whose verbal jujitsu masks a passion for the equally cunning and lovestruck Benedick (the two just don’t know it yet). Indeed, when Beatrice finally gets around to confessing her devotion in Act IV, Norris practically spits out the words, so choked with emotion is she.

The only quibble: Norris and Sosko deliver such strong individual performances that once the cat is out of the bag, as they say, they project brotherly-sisterly affection more than romantic chemistry. As Hero says at one point of Beatrice: “She cannot love … She is so self-endear’d” — and it’s a criticism that could also be applied to her precocious beau.

“Much Ado About Nothing,” runs through Nov. 27 at the Folger Theatre, located at 201 East Capitol St. SE. For ticket information and show times, visit www.folger.edu.