Former Hartford Stage a.d. Mark Lamos opens the company’s 39th season with this anyone-for-tennis? staging of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Set mostly in the garden of an English country house in the 1920s, this “Ado” — a co-production with D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater, where it will play next — looks glossily expensive and is clearly and intelligently spoken, complete with a variety of English accents. But Shakespeare’s comic wit has been blunted here, and this staging is surprisingly bloodless and lacking in spontaneity.
Karen Ziemba, the award-winning Broadway musical performer noted for her dancing, plays the anti-romantic Beatrice. She is to be applauded for taking it on, and does have presence and verbal fluency. But the witty cut and thrust between Beatrice and her equally anti-romantic foil, Benedick (Dan Snook), just doesn’t manifest itself, and as the production progresses, Ziemba seems to be more and more a shrewish Kate than a disdainful Beatrice. Neither is she flattered by her hairdo nor some of Catherine Zuber’s many sumptuous ’20s costumes, which keep drawing attention to themselves rather than helping the characterizations of the thesps wearing them.
As Benedick, Snook is too lightweight, especially opposite Ziemba’s sturdy Beatrice. And at times he’s far too cutely coy.
These two roles are problematic because they’re actually peripheral to the play’s plot, which revolves around Hero (Kathleen Early) and Claudio (Barrett Foa). The role of Claudio is even more problematic since he, on the flimsiest of evidence, has to turn on his beloved Hero at their wedding and denounce her as unfaithful. Early is an attractive little Hero, without being quite a strong enough presence, and Foa isn’t able to fully negotiate the great leaps of feeling and attitude Claudio is asked to make.
Peter Rini is an elegant Don Pedro, and Glenn Fleshler aptly nasty as his evil bastard brother, Don John. Richard Ziman and Edwin Owens get their laughs as the comic constables Dogberry and Verges (though they are a bit plodding); Owens reappears later as an effective Friar Francis. Two of the best performances come from Michael Santo as Leonato, Hero’s father, and Nafe Katter as his brother Antonio. Their maturity pays off.
Riccardo Hernandez’s vast setting is all manicured lawn, topiaries and white stairs and balustrades. Popular music of the ’20s is used (although at one point a pun brings in the strains of “Speak Low,” a song from a 1943 musical). The production ends with a rug-cutting arm-and-leg flinging dance for the whole cast.