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"Much Ado About Nothing" at Hartford Stage

Pearls in a cloudy soup? Chris Rohmann reviews "Much Ado About Nothing," directed by Mark Lamos.

Mark Lamos is a master of the grand concept and the splendid stage image. When he was Artistic Director of Hartford Stage in the nineties, his productions, especially of Shakespeare, were rich, cinematic banquets of color and movement splashed through a bold thematic prism. Now he's back as a guest director, turning his operatic eye on one of the Bard's barbed but sunlit romantic comedies.

"Much Ado About Nothing" is Shakespeare's sendup of the ways intellect can smother passion -- a kind of interpersonal version of the dichotomy he creates between the stuffy formal court and the free romantic countryside in "As You Like It," "Cymbeline," et al. Here we find two prickly smart-alecks who are desperately in love with each other and desperate not to let on. Instead of falling into each other's arms -- which of course we know they will do eventually -- they use their rapier wits to thrust and parry, hiding heartthrobs with insults.

Shakespeare set this merry war of wits in one of his fanciful Renaissance Italian landscapes, into which a group of gallant young soldiers comes, triumphant from foreign wars. Lamos picks up on this mood, while underlining its frivolous side, by placing his production in a post-World War I country estate, at a time when the world was new and innocent all over again, the Victrola jumped with jazz, and the battle of the sexes suddenly seemed the only war worth waging. Riccardo Hernandez depicts this indolent world with a broad sweep of manicured gardens in billiard-table green and pilastered stairways of white marble. The lush expanse is dotted with aristocratic flappers and dashing junior officers, all of them lavishly costumed by Catherine Zuber and cheerily lit by Mimi Jordan Sherin.

To dot the "i" in "indolent," Lamos has also moved Shakespeare's Italianate frolic to upper-crust England. Leastwise, he's put teddibly British accents in the mouths of his American actors, without altering the Continental names and titles of the original. The fact that hardly anyone in the cast manages anything like a credible English accent is probably not intentional, though a forgiving spectator might want to allow that it's all part of the sense of artifice.

Lamos's broad strokes and those of his design team are impressive, sure enough. As director, he creates marvelous stage movement and a kaleidoscope of pretty tableaux. But his work with the actors is slipshod, almost perfunctory. There's no coherent acting style, resulting in wild variations between and even within some performances. You'd think the director merely told his actors where to stand and then let them do whatever they damn well pleased. In too many cases, they appear to do what comes easiest, giving performances that play like auditions.

As Benedick, the slippery swain who swears he's "allergic to love," Dan Snook is the guiltiest of making these facile choices. Now he's posing as a suave gentleman, now he's furrowing his brow to show concern, and in his big comic speech, when Benedick overhears his friends saying (for his unwitting benefit) that the waspish Beatrice is really crazy about him, he mugs and flails like a stand-up comic milking easy laughs. Karen Ziéma, as Beatrice, gives what in itself is the play's most heartfelt and convincing performance, but its very connectedness to, like, real emotions makes her seem out of place (though welcomely so) in this company.

There are two rocky romances about which much ado is made in this play. Benedick's fellow officer Claudio and Beatrice's cousin Hero don't hesitate to fall into each other's arms, but their bliss is momentarily imperiled by slanderous aspersions on her chastity. Barrett Foa and Kathleen Early are charmingly callow in these roles, which cast a mirror of puppy-innocence on Benedick and Beatrice's urbane romantic tangle.

The plot to spoil Claudio and Hero's wedding day is exposed by one of Shakespeare's classic clowns, the bumbling constable Dogberry, he of the howling malapropisms ("Is all our dissembly appeared?"). Richard Ziman's scenes, especially when he's playing off Edwin Owens' antique deputy, are priceless.

But these and a few other moments are pearls in a cloudy soup. Mark Lamos and his designers have given us a handsome big gift box -- but it's much ado wrapped about nothing much.

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