Burning Coal Theater’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is a rocking and rewarding good time from top to bottom. If anything, Shakespeare’s 1598 comedy about maturity and immaturity is even more fresh and fitting in our day, when adolescence persists well into middle age, and mass-market yobbism is a modern societal obsession, rivaling in its dominance the chivalry cult of the late Middle Ages—but with perhaps more open misogyny.
Sparring partners Beatrice and Benedick are the prototype for every couple-who-love-to-hate-each-other in theater, movies, and TV sitcom—think Sam Malone and Diane Chambers of Cheers and Mattie and David of Moonlighting. As long as they can trade insults with each other, and party with their same-sex friends, both Beatrice and Benedick indulge their taste for independence—disdaining any serious endeavor, and reserving all their wit and energy declaiming their respective passions for singlehood. (As moderns, these two would fit perfectly in any novella of chick- or lad-lit.)
It’s only when their fun-buddies veer into potentially tragic terrain—with accusations of mortal dishonor and a faked death—that Beatrice realizes the limitations of her bachelorette status: under the constraints of her gender, she can’t stand up fully for her best girlfriend. Motivated by loyalty to womanhood, she recruits manliness to woman’s defence by way of Benedick, her sworn frienemy (James Anderson). As Beatrice, Jenn Suchanec (always a vivid player of a spirited and intelligent heroine) delivers the pivotal line of the play with stirring vehemence. Her challenge to Benedick—defend her friend’s honor from slanders uttered by his comrade in mischief, Claudio—converts into his own throw-down with his old buddies, transforming him from sardonic boyo to full-grown hero. By this subjugation to woman, his masculinity is, at last, accomplished.
If you think all this gender politics is too much for one comedy, don’t fret. There’s laughter aplenty in this fresh and vibrant production, in which every element of stagecraft combines to advance the comedic mayhem. Worth noting in particular are the the costumes designed by Kelly Farrow from vintage and modern materials, not to mention a startling miscellany of found objects. In the fourth and fifth acts, Sheriff Dogberry (Julie Oliver) and his incompetent band of deputy constables practically steal the show, and the repurposed paraphernalia attached to their ridiculous ‘uniforms’ parallels Dogberry’s ludicrous misuse of the English language. The creatively imagined set consists of a deck with sandboxes and a sizable pool of water, often used to underscore moments of delusion, in which the characters occasionally even roll.
A Shakespeare comedy for the holidays is fast becoming a tradition for Raleigh’s own Burning Coal Theater. If future productions are as enjoyable as this one (and last year’s excellent Twelfth Night), audiences do well to set aside a December evening or afternoon for a dose of holiday cheer.
Much Ado About Nothing
Now through Sunday, December 20
Meymandi Theater at The Murphey School, Blount & Polk Streets, Raleigh
Burning Coal Website