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Warmhearted 'Much Ado' focuses on love

In the eavesdropping scene in the new "Much Ado About Nothing" that opened Sunday on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage, the concealed Benedick, warmly played by David Kelly, slips into a pool of water in Leonato's (Bill Geisslinger) garden. As his friends prattle loudly about Beatrice's supposed love for him, the astonished Benedick stays down for a very long time.

A great spurt of water finally arcs forth, and a drenched Benedick emerges. Kelly is a gifted comic actor, and this is exactly the sort of moment that Kate Buckley, directing her third production of the play, knows how to stage.

Buckley's warmhearted staging and engaging performances by OSF veterans Kelly and Robynn Rodriguez, who plays Beatrice, keep the production focused on the play's light side while skirting the darkness always lurking near the play's two-hearted center.

"Much Ado" is the un-"Henry VIII" of the OSF's new outdoor season, an audience-friendly romp. While we keep asking ourselves why we're following Katherine and Henry and Wolsey, we relish the sexual dueling of Benedick and Beatrice, Hero's symbolic death and resurrection, Dogberry's hilarious malapropisms.

Buckley has set the double love story in 1943 in Todd Rosenthal's sun-drenched Messina, to which Don Pedro (Peter Macon) and his soldiers have repaired after fighting Fascists in the hills of Sicily. Nan Cibula-Jenkins has dressed everybody in gorgeous '40s attire, lots of wide lapels and shoulder-pad elegance. Sarah Pickett's music adds Sicilian brio, and Robert Peterson's lights soak it all in Mediterranean sunshine.

These young men have seen too much of each other recently, and little female companionship, and a frat-boy atmosphere prevails as parties and romance loom. There are the endless jokes and wordplay about horns, stemming from the soldiers' Renaissance obsession with infidelity.

Most of the ado is about two deceptions: Don John's vicious slander that Hero has betrayed Claudio, and Friar Francis' (Tim Blough) white lie that Hero is dead. There are others: Don Pedro's courting of Hero on behalf of Claudio, Beatrice's and Benedick's insistence on a phony, Tracy-and-Hepburnish war of the sexes, their friends' plot to have each "accidentally" learn of the other's love.

The meaning of "Nothing" is not confined to the opposite of something. It was pronounced in Shakespeare's day much like "noting," which was slang for eavesdropping, and it also had a sexual connotation, and both meanings point to the play's content. On its surface it's classic comedy, with love denied then regained, but it also has a disturbing edge of cruelty.

Don Pedro's evil brother, Don John, played by Christopher Michael Rivera as perhaps a Mafioso hanger-on, probably with Fascist sympathies, arranges for Claudio (Juan Rivera LeBron) to see Borachio (Todd Bjurstrom) slip into Hero's (Sarah Rutan) window. Claudio misconstrues the scene as Hero being unfaithful. With the public shaming that follows, she is consigned, like Hermione, to a symbolic death. The motif of the seemingly jilted lover agreeing to marry a mysterious substitute bride in place of his beloved is an interesting device that's seldom explored in any depth.

Most of the focus is on the Benedick-Beatrice relationship, and the baiting and the banter are always good for laughs. When Beatrice, who alone is steadfast in her belief in her cousin, tells Benedick in one of the most memorable lines in all Shakespeare's comedies, "Kill Claudio," it is, as usual, a laugh line, although it could open other doors.

Rodriguez' Beatrice bridles at Benedick, while Kelly's Benedick is leery of women generally, opining that marriage is a yoke. In the end the yoke is on him.

All their sparkling wit contrasts with the mauling the King's English takes from Dogberry (Tony DeBruno) and his Keystone constables.

Buckley has imagined a backstory in which Beatrice and Benedick had an earlier relationship that ended badly, and Kelly and Rodriguez give the lovers an air of something underlying the wordplay.

When Buckley directed a brilliant version of "The Taming of the Shrew" on this stage two years ago, she injected an ironic twist into Petruchio's subjugation of Kate that strongly suggested a new way of looking at the problematic play. "Ado" is an irony-free zone that delivers comfortable laughs but none of those flashes of illumination you hope for and seldom get. What you want to see one of these days is for somebody like Buckley to grab "Much Ado" by the horns — pun intended — and explore that darkness.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Don Pedro (Peter Macon) dances with Hero (Sarah Rutan) at the masked ball as the family celebrates in “Much Ado About Nothing,” which opened Sunday on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Elizabethan Stage.