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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Much Ado About Nothing
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Also see Rick's review of The Light Chasers

Geoffrey Warren Barnes II and Kelly Mengelkoch
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Spring has sprung in Cincinnati, and a warmly humorous southern Italian staging of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing offers a tonic to put cooler weather behind. Samantha Reno's sun-washed set and the theater's interior are festooned with grapevines. The piazza outside Governor Leonato's villa in Messina even features a tub for pressing grapes into wine, and at stage left there's a bar ("Just Grapes!" is open preshow for audience members to step up and buy a glass of vino). It's an inviting setting for one of Shakespeare's most enjoyable comedies.

The story revolves around two pairs of potential lovers. Feisty Beatrice (Kelly Mengelkoch) is called "My Dear Lady Disdain" by witty Benedick (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II), and they poke at and spar with one another, bemused at foolish notions of love and in denial regarding their mutual attraction. Meanwhile, Benedick's besotted and dashing comrade Claudio (Ray K. Soeun) yearns to marry Beatrice's sweet, modest cousin Hero (Hannah Gregory).

Of course, there's obvious underlying attraction between the bawdy and straightforward Beatrice and the teasing, smart-aleck Benedick, who has arrived among a visiting retinue led by expansive Don Pedro (Billy Chace). It's apparent that the pair have some history, and their voluble, verbal back and forth employs some of Shakespeare's most beloved wordplay. Don Pedro and Claudio, with the aid of Hero and her maidservants, undertake an amusing campaign to dupe Beatrice and Benedick into each believing that the other is secretly in love and pining for affection.

It doesn't take much convincing, with the dropping of big fat hints for easy overhearing. Considerable humor comes from Barnes and Mengelkoch's secreted reactions to the misleading conversations. He hides himself in a wine barrel that he jumps around the stage in, while the conspirators drink wine from the bar and make up gossip about Beatrice's amorous yearnings. Finished, they toss the dregs of their wine into Benedick's barrel. Mengelkoch does her best to remain hidden while eavesdropping on Hero and the ladies dishing about Benedick's infatuation. She eventually must escape to a high, tiled rooftop where a bird's nest is a catalyst for a very funny moment. In addition to their verbal dexterity, both actors excel at physical humor, making these sequences especially amusing.

Meanwhile, the imminent marriage of Claudio and Hero is derailed by Don John (Beasley), Don Pedro's ill-willed, mischief-making, bastard brother, who sets in motion a plan of deception to convince Claudio that Hero is unfaithful. This element of the story is more serious, and when Claudio calls Hero out at the alter for her presumed infidelity, the action takes a dramatic turn–as the bride-to-be faints and is assumed to be dead. Beatrice is beside herself at her cousin's ill-treatment, and when Benedick awkwardly tries to profess his love for her, she insists that he "kill Claudio." He nervously agrees to challenge his friend.

That ultimately proves unnecessary when Shakespeare inserts one of his most amusing comic plot twists: The self-important constable Dogberry (Cary Davenport), spewing malapropisms, is backed by an ancient doddering underling, Verges (Courtney Lucien). They officiously oversee a trio of goofball members of the Prince's Watch (Gina Cerimele-Mechley, Mierka Girten, and Katie Mitchell). Charged with keeping an eye on potential misbehavior, they unwittingly stumble onto the plot to discredit Hero.

Davenport's physical slapstick is the key to these hilarious interludes, especially once the perpetrators have been apprehended and he takes the lead in questioning them. On a balcony, this tiny ensemble is choreographed leaning in unison this way and that as arguments and evidence are thrown forth. Dogberry is called an ass, and that charge–while true–becomes his most pressing concern in the revelatory moment when Hero's innocence is revealed.

Of course, as the title Much Ado About Nothing signals (this tale could just as well have been called All's Well That Ends Well), everything sorts out in time for two happy marriages. Director Jeremy Dubin has spun these tales with masterful sustained energy and steady moments of humor, keeping all the characters on track for the story's comic conclusion.

Dubin's production is enhanced with live music and singing. Lucien and Davenport periodically step outside their comic roles to play musicians on violin and guitar. Lucien, in particular, as Balthasar, renders a lovely song, "Sigh no more, Ladies, sigh no more," to encourage angry Don Pedro and Claudio to step back from their harsh, misguided judgment of Hero. The production opens with a dancing number that finishes with grape-stomping, and it closes with Barnes leading a full-cast rap and dance routine about "Red wine goes to my head." These are delightfully choreographed by Susan Jung, adding considerably to the show's rousing spirit.

Thanks to Cincy Shakes' thrust stage, much of the action is close to the audience. As Barnes expresses Benedick's scorn for romance, he often directly addresses those seated in the front row, fist-bumping and kissing ladies' hands. Mengelkoch also takes advantage of this proximity. And Dogberry's antic watch team march up and down the aisles, delivering physical comedy with unavoidable immediacy.

That aspect, in fact, is a big part of the charm of Much Ado About Nothing: Almost nonstop humor keeps the audience laughing out loud veritably from start to finish as well as departing the theater with broad smiles.

Much Ado About Nothing runs through May 5, 2024, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm Street (adjacent to Washington Park in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-381-2273.