CSC, Shakespeare hit a home run on the Common

The cast of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

By Rich Fahey

BOSTON – It was a home run of an evening for an institution and a tradition that surely could use one.

The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company has been performing its free Shakespeare on the Common productions since 1996, and this year’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is being performed before thousands of theater-goers happy to be back in what feels like normalcy.

This “Much Ado About Nothing” is brisk, bright and just right for a summer evening.

The 2020 CSC production of “The Tempest” was canceled amid the pandemic.  Last season, under strict Covid protocols a shortened – if critically-acclaimed – production of “The Tempest” renewed the tradition.

On a  beautiful summer evening on the Boston Common,  CSC Artistic Director Steven Maler gave thanks that the steambath of the week before had given way to more reasonable weather.

Two veteran actors who have frequently graced the CSC stage – Remo Airaldi and John Kuntz – are front and center. Airaldi is Leonato, the governor of Messina, performing the role with the same easy grace he inhabits all of his Shakespearean roles, while Kuntz is his brother Antonio, the beneficiary of some of costume designer Kathleen Doyle’s more colorful and elaborate creations.

Doyle’s work is part of Maler’s longtime tradition – here continued by Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian — of making sure production values such as sound, lighting, costumes, and set are bold and brassy enough to be seen and appreciated by all in the audience, and impervious to the sirens, church bells, etc.  endemic to outdoor productions.

Tia James and Rachel Warren in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Photo: Nile Scott Sudios

Maler and Sandberg-Zakian have continued another tradition – of making the annual production accessible even to the least of those appreciating the work of The Bard of Avon.

The plot of “Much Ado” evolves around four key characters and two romantic relationships. Sandberg-Zakian has used her directorial privilege to make one of the key characters – Benedick (Tia James), a lord and soldier of Padua – female.

Beatrice (Rachel Warren), the niece of Leonato, is the BFF of her cousin Hero (Rebecca-Anne Whittaker), daughter of Leonato.  Early on, Hero falls in love with Claudio, a nobleman from Florence (Erik Robles) and the two agree to wed. Claudio is also a close friend of Benedick’s.

The joining of Beatrice and Benedick is a different story. The fiery scenes between James’ Benedick and Warren as Beatrice have the two would-be lovers hurling Shakespeare’s bon mots at each other like so many mortar shells. That they will end up not only together but married by play’s end seems incongruous. A longtime mainstay at Providence’s Trinity Rep, Warren is able to cut someone to the quick just using her tongue.

When a conspiracy is launched to make it seem Hero has been unfaithful, Claudio and a host of others – including Hero’s own father, Leonato – are willing and eager to throw her under the bus.

Beatrice and Benedick’s tentative pad de deux takes a dark turn when Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio as justice for Claudio apparently destroying Hero.

Debra Wise steals several scenes as Dogberry, the intrepid  constable who is attired in a forest ranger’s uniform and is a cross between Dudley DoRight and The Pink Panther.

He not only gets his man – Don John (Gunnar Manchester), the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon (Michael Underhill), but Don John’s co-conspirator and associate, Borachio (Sarah Corey).

“Much Ado About Nothing” is performed straight through without an intermission, so plan accordingly, especially when it comes to that Ben and Jerry’s ice cream truck at the rear of the Common.

Alas, the happy ending always grates a bit, given that with all Claudio has put Hero through, she is able to set it all aside and go through with the marriage. Attention, both men and women: You may not be so lucky.

Music is present throughout the production. And Sandberg-Zakian has devised an ensemble musical ending that is choreographed and enthusiastically performed; it  will ask a question that pertains not only to these romantic couplings but all others.   

Sandberg-Zakian, in an interview with the Boston Globe, said the concept she came up with for this production is just an opportunity to experience the story in a way that’s revelatory in this moment. “We all want to find a person to love.”

The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Through Aug. 7 on the Boston Common.

The constable Dogberry (Debra Wise, right) accuses the culprits arrested in the plot to defame Hero. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.