“Some Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps,” says Hero in “Much Ado About Nothing,” which opened Friday in a sunny production at the Guthrie Theater.
She could have added: some with swords, some with words. Language is much savored, and rightfully so, in director Joe Dowling’s comically sweet, relaxed staging of “Much Ado.”
This comedy about lovers getting together later in life is handsomely designed and lit, with the action taking place on Riccardo Hernández’s emerald-hued, proscenium-shaped set on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. Costume designer Fabio Toblini has taken a liberal interpretation of the post World War I setting, with characters attired in Gatsby-esque and flapper-like clothes. Some of the men also wear elaborate feathered hats.
Joe Chvala’s perfunctory choreography helps to establish the postwar milieu.
One of Dowling’s strengths in directing Shakespeare always has been his attention to language. No matter the era in which he places the plays, Shakespeare’s wordplay and Elizabethan lyricism remain paramount.
In “Much Ado,” a huge production with more than two dozen performers onstage, the actors nearly always make their marks, delivering lines as if the words were caviar. Sometimes such relish comes at a price, though. The deep care for language can mean that the actors pay more attention to what their characters are saying than how they are feeling. We want to be swept up in the dramatic action, not be at an admiring remove.
The main “Much Ado” plot centers on would-be lovers Beatrice (a precise, magnetic Dearbhla Molloy) and Benedick (frequently agitated Daniel Gerroll). Each is single late in life but they detest each other. Their friends want them coupled up, and orchestrate a romance. The differing styles of two leads help with the show’s sparks, with Molloy’s reserve and Gerroll’s nervous energy creating a push-pull tension.
A subplot is even more compelling than the main narrative. It centers on Beatrice’s cousin and sometimes-roommate, Hero (alluring Michelle O’Neill), who is wooed by Claudio (stiff-postured, lacerating Bill McCallum). In a narrative that echoes the main plot of “The Winter’s Tale,” which Jonathan Munby staged with style in February, a woman is accused of a moral failing, is publicly shamed, seems to die and is resurrected.
O’Neill inhabited the resurrected figure in both plays. In “Winter’s Tale,” she was sylvan. Here, she projects a dignified victimhood in a role that Shakespeare gave too few lines.
Dowling’s mostly commendable production also features Peter Michael Goetz as yipping constable Dogberry, Dennis Creaghan as steady governor Leonato and Ron Menzel as ill-born and handsomely aggrieved Don John.