Shakespeare meets the Mafia in 1950s Sicily in Shakespeare & Co.'s new production of "Much Ado About Nothing." At nearly three hours it's too long, and it has a weak performance in an important role. On the other hand, its text is clearly and meaningfully projected. Mafia or no, here's an "Ado" that for the most part entertains handsomely.

Shakespeare meets the Mafia in 1950s Sicily in Shakespeare & Co.’s new production of romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” and the heartening news is that the results are infinitely more professional and rewarding than S&Co.’s dreadful Bard renderings of last summer. Not that this “Ado” is flawless. At nearly three hours it’s too long, and it has a terminally weak performance in an important role. On the other hand, its text is clearly and meaningfully projected, a fact we are supposed to take for granted in S&Co. productions but that isn’t always the case. There’s also ongoing vigor and rhythm to Daniela Varon’s staging, and a number of the individual perfs are very good. Mafia or no, here’s an “Ado” that for the most part entertains handsomely.

Making the two families in the play members of the Mafia brings nothing to it and its “merry war” between anti-romantics Beatrice and Benedick, apart from some double-barreled shotguns and switchblades toted by the thuglike cohorts of Don Pedro. And the period costumes are, for the most part, unattractive. This is all too true of the clothes for Paula Langton’s Beatrice, which are anything but flattering; her final ill-fitting dress makes her look like a frumpy matron.

Conversely, Cameron Anderson’s set is a delight. For this production, S&Co. has reconfigured its 3-year-old Founders’ Theater to give it a long thrust stage with the audience on three sides. Anderson gives the new stage a creamy-marble look with a rear wall that sports an arched entranceway, windows and two balconies. A silhouetted floral motif adds to the set’s light, airy, summery look; not surprisingly, some thesps wear dark glasses. Some smoke at times, too. And Beatrice eats spaghetti.

Popular music from the ’50s and earlier is used throughout. Balthasar as a crooner (Daniel J. Sherman, also a convincing Friar Francis) entertains at a party singing “Strangers in the Night” in Italian. And “Speak Low” is heard, for the good reason that its title is taken from a line in the play. When Beatrice and Benedick finally are falling for each other, Sinatra croons “The Tender Trap.”

Allyn Burrows, mustached and goateed, is a deft, assured Benedick, though not immune from the staging’s overall belief that the text always has to be linked with movement. Oh, how one wishes to shout: Don’t just do something, stand there! Langton flounces and poses too much to begin with but tones down later, and is a strong enough Beatrice to overcome her costumes.

Most of the rest of the cast is at least adequate, often more than that, with Jonathan Epstein delivering the most subtle performance as, of all people, the malapropism-prone constable Dogberry. Epstein, who will play King Lear later this S&Co. season, gives Dogberry a lovely foolish dignity, never more so than when he is imploring everyone to remember that he’s been called an ass. Here is a Dogberry who pops up out of a manhole, umbrella in hand, and is not only charming but touching.

Sadly, the acting side is let down damagingly by Jason Asprey as the villainous Don John. Asprey is the one actor who can’t be heard clearly, and he brings absolutely nothing to his role. Director Varon should have intervened, just as she should take lessons from Epstein in the virtues of less being more. As it is, her production is a matter of more being less; 20 minutes less would, in fact, be welcome.

Nevertheless, this “Ado” rekindles hope for the future of 25-year-old S&Co. on its 63-acre Lenox campus, hope that had faltered badly since its move there.

Much Ado About Nothing

Founders' Theater, Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, Mass.; 422 seats; $45 top

Production

A Shakespeare & Co. presentation of a romantic comedy by William Shakespeare in two acts. Directed by Daniela Varon.

Creative

Choreographer, Susan Dibble. Set, Cameron Anderson; costumes, Jacqueline Firkins; lighting, Matthew E. Adelson; sound, Jason Fitzgerald, Daniela Varon; composer ("Speak Low"), Sherrill Reynolds; fight director, Kevin G. Coleman; voice and text coaches, Ariel Bock, Leigh Smiley; production stage manager, Brenda J. Lillie. Shakespeare & Co. artistic director, Tina Packer. Opened June 7, 2003. Reviewed June 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.

Cast

Leonato - Malcolm Ingram Beatrice - Paula Langton Hero - Stephanie Dodd Antonio - Mel Cobb Ursula - Lane Whittemore Margaret - Elizabeth Aspenlieder Messenger, Watchman - Lon Bull Don Pedro - Jonathan Croy Benedick - Allyn Burrows Claudio, Verges - Mark Saturno Don John, Sexton - Jason Asprey Borachio - Johnny Lee Davenport Conrade - Gabriel Vaughan Balthasar, Watchman, Friar - Daniel J. Sherman Musician, Watchman - Nathan Wolfe Coleman Dogberry - Jonathan Epstein

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