Shakespeare’s classic comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing,” is playing at The Stagecrafters, 8130 Germantown Ave., through April 20. Seen here are the leads Brian Scott Campbell and Leah O’Hara. (Photo by Sara Stewart)

by Hugh Hunter

It took 20 years, but I finally found a “creative” re-staging of a Shakespeare play that actually improved on the original. At Stagecrafters, co-directors Yaga Brady and Jane Jennings move “Much Ado About Nothing” from Messina, Sicily to the outskirts of Morelia in Central Mexico and achieve some colorful effects.

The flowers, costumes, music and fiesta flair of Mexico wonderfully enhance the lighthearted fun of “Much Ado.” The set design of Marie Laster is an eye-catching hacienda with loads of arcade columns and shuttered windows for eavesdroppers and pranksters to comically hide out.

Leah O’Hara and Brian Scott Campbell are perfectly matched as Beatriz and Benedick, a pair of witty, querulous lovers. Beatriz is something of a cross between sloe-eyed Rosalind in “As You Like It” and Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew.” Benedick can barely keep pace with her sharp-tongued wit. Both are determinedly standoffish until merry mischief-makers conspire to bring them together.

While the pas de deux between Beatriz and Benedick owns the play, the core dramatic conflic concerns another pair of lovers – Claudio (Nolan Maher) and Hero (Samantha Simpson) – and the foul plans of bastard Don Juan (Ross Druker) to destroy their happiness. Unlike Iago, he is so straightforward in his hatred that he is easily discoverable.

In Don Juan’s hatred for brother Don Pedro (Jim Fryer), “Much Ado” could easily turn into a tragedy. But from the start, the show presents him as the spiritual opposite of Beatriz. He is a man too dull-witted to triumph. Stagecrafters takes advantage of all the tricks the bard uses to keep the tone of the play light and joyous.

The scenes where the star lovers are duped truly sparkle. First, Leonado (sic), played by Mort Paterson; Claudio and Don Pedro allow Benedick to overhear them discussing Beatriz’s love for him. Shortly, Hero and Antonia (Vanessa Ballard) pull the same trick on Beatriz. It is delightful to watch the two lovers popping about in their hiding places, being gulled and enduring insults.

Later, the show milks the humor of chief constable Dogberry (John Pinto). Dogberry precedes Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop by two centuries in mangling the English language, and Shakespeare lays it on with a trowel (as Celia says in “As You Like It”). Again, Dogberry is used to keep the tone gay and to stop you from taking Don Juan’s evil-doing too seriously.

As high comedy, “Much Ado” may not be on par with “As You Like It” or “The Winter’s Tale.” But it is a charming entertainment. Mostly a lot of fun, it also fits in with Shakespeare’s jaundiced views about romantic love. Masked dances are prominent; deception and self-deception are everywhere. While the witty self-distancing of Beatriz and Benedick has a nihilistic tinge, it may come close to what Shakespeare himself believed.

Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Much Ado About Nothing” will run through April 20. For ticket information, call 215-247-8881 or go to thestagecrafters.org

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