The laughter was flowing on opening night of “Much Ado About Nothing.” So were a few tears, in the darker moments of the splendid new California Shakespeare Theater production of Shakespeare’s autumnal comedy.
Balance is always the challenge in “Much Ado”; audiences who laugh their way through Act 1 are often surprised by the somber tone of Act 2.
The “merry war of words” between the play’s central characters, Beatrice and Benedick, is offset by the troubled, nearly tragic relationship of the secondary couple, Hero and Claudio. This production meets the challenge head-on.
Directed by Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone as the final show of the company’s 2010 season, this “Much Ado” is fleshed out with complex human characters. Moscone embraces both extremes of the emotional spectrum, and the results are sharp, sexy, bittersweet and very funny.
Most of the humor derives from the courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, who are madly in love with each other but can’t admit it to themselves or anyone else.
Andy Murray takes top honors as Benedick. The veteran Cal Shakes actor plays the part with a magnetic mixture of swagger, sarcasm and well-timed physical humor.
His Benedick is the quintessential confirmed bachelor, so afraid of commitment he has a panic attack just thinking about it.
As Beatrice, Domenique Lozano is more cerebral, but no less hilarious. She’s always ready with a withering look or a wry remark.
But the scene when she finally declares her love – and demands proof of Benedick’s in return – packs a devastating punch.
The rest of the cast is just as strong. Nick Childress is an aptly sullen, impulsive Claudio, and Emily Kitchens is a sweet, fresh-faced Hero.
Dan Hiatt’s Leonato, Nicholas Pelczar’s Don Pedro, and Andrew Hurteau’s Friar Francis contribute mightily as the patrician elders.
Thomas Gorrebeeck’s Borachio and Michael Davison’s Conrade add a dangerous edge; Catherine Castellanos’s Ursula and Delia MacDougall’s Margaret exude hormonal heat.
Danny Scheie, who takes on the thankless role of Don John and makes it brilliant, also plays the funniest Dogberry ever seen on this stage.
The staging is beautiful. Daniel Ostling’s three-story set, decked with flowers and fitted with the requisite balconies, nooks and hiding places, is washed in sunny Italian colors by Russell H. Champa’s lighting. Christal Weatherly’s costumes – gauzy dresses for the women, military wear for the men – flatter everyone.
But this is a production that works from the inside out. Moscone’s exploration of the text yields something rare – a comedy built on deep feeling. It’s a delicious tribute to love, and a glorious season finale.
Much Ado About Nothing
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Ampitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 17
Tickets: $34 to $70
Contact: (510) 548-9666; www.calshakes.org