Opening its 41st season, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey has dropped its former “Festival” tag. Bonnie Monte, artistic director for 13 years, thought the term misrepresented the company as a short-term seasonal event, when the expansive seven-play slate runs through December. Monte’s attractive production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” boasts both comic vigor and enveloping romanticism.
Real-life spouses Donna Bullock and Sherman Howard engage in a vigorous love-hate relationship as reluctant lovers Beatrice and Benedick, who are duped into a wary but ultimately fervent union. Howard, while lacking the requisite dash and swagger, is a headstrong and virile Benedick; he’s especially amusing when hiding in the garden as his devious chums reveal their plot to engage him into a dubious courtship. Bullock is coyly assiduous as Beatrice, without being overly shrewish, and she is a sweetly feminine sparring partner, staunch and vibrantly warm. Their cautious, feisty spats boast a spirited edge, and when true romance blooms, the first flush is ardently conveyed.
Eric Hoffman is a blustery Dogberry, the local constable who manages to fracture the English language with droll malapropisms that are so casually dispensed they very nearly make sense. Hoffman is genuinely funny, skirting the easy temptation to ham it up. Director Monte has wisely avoided the accustomed taste of slapstick here, letting the structural delight of the Bard’s comic lines tickle the viewer’s fancy.
The manipulative Leonato of Robert Lanchester is a formidable host for the subsequent matchmaking. Curtis Mark Williams’ callow Claudio is a shade too stiff. (Where’s the first flush of true love?) That lack may be due to Ali Marsh, who’s somewhat pallid and bland as the unfortunately victimized Hero. The compulsive villainy of Edmond Genest’s meddling Don John is too muted and restrained. He is a most intrusive villain, but not strongly characterized here.
There are a couple of genuinely funny bits by the doddery old constable, played by Larry Swansen. It should be noted that pretty Hannah Sherman, the daughter of Howard and Bullock, makes her professional debut as a winsome maiden.
Monte has set the comedy at the tail end of the 18th century, providing costume designer Frank Champa the opportunity to dress the women in gorgeous period gowns and the gents in slick military garb.
Leah Kreutzer has elegantly choreographed a courtly masked ball. Tall cypress trees, a statuary and a small gazebo back the spacious formal-garden set designed by James Wolk.