At first glance, “Much Ado About Nothing” might seem an odd choice for the all-female theater company Woman’s Will.
Shakespeare’s comedy is all about the battle of the sexes, particularly the “merry war” between its principal characters, Beatrice and Benedick.
But the new production that opened July 10 in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park captures the play’s essence with skill and considerable insight.
Lisa Edsall-Giglio’s 2½-hour staging, which continues in free outdoor performances at various Bay Area parks through Aug. 29, derives a wealth of humor from the banter between the self-centered Benedick (Maddox L. Pratt) and the headstrong Beatrice (Lauren Spencer), who harbor a powerful secret attraction even as they swear they can’t stand the sight of each other.
It also delivers plenty of emotional punch in the subplot involving the play’s second couple, Claudio (Elissa Beth Stebbins), and his beloved bride-to-be, Hero (Anees Guillen).
Tricked into believing that Hero is unfaithful, Claudio brutally denounces her on their wedding day, with near-tragic results.
Edsall-Giglio’s direction is refreshingly faithful to the text. She doesn’t rewrite the play or try to update it in any way; set more or less in the Messina of Shakespeare’s original, the production relies on characterization, with a few well-placed songs and dances to enliven the action.
The director seems most concerned with reaching for the play’s extremes of darkness and light, and the cast, many playing multiple roles, makes it work in nearly every scene.
Pratt’s funny, articulate Benedick is the standout, endearing and easy to watch in the initial verbal jousts with Beatrice and gaining in emotional depth as their love is put to the test.
Spencer is an aptly sunny Beatrice, although her rushed delivery occasionally made her lines inaudible.
Stebbins’ callow Claudio and Guillen’s demure Hero make essential contributions, with strong support from Jennifer McGeorge’s patrician Don Pedro, Maryssa Wanlass’ malevolent Don John, Leticia Duarte’s wry Margaret and Nora O’Reilly’s sullen Borachio.
Alicia Stamps’ Dogberry and Sabrina De Mio’s Verges supply comic relief as the play’s rustic watchmen.
Still, the finest moments come in the moving Act 2 scene with Beth Chastain’s Leonato and Janice Fuller-Leone’s Antonio.
Through these two wise old characters, Shakespeare expresses a surprisingly modern view of the wrongs done to women; as performed by Woman’s Will, the playwright’s words have seldom seemed so poignant, or so true.
Much Ado About Nothing
Presented by Woman’s Will
When: Weekends through Aug. 29
Where: Various Bay Area parks
July 25, 5 p.m.: Civic Park Community Center, 1375 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
July 30, 6 p.m.: Hillside Clubhouse Lawn, Golden Rain Road, Rossmoor
Aug. 1, 1 p.m.: Rengstorff House, 3070 N. Shoreline Drive, Mountain View
Aug. 7-8, 1 p.m.: Montclair Park, Oakland
Aug. 14, 1 p.m.: Town Green, Danville
Aug. 15, 4:30 p.m.: Centennial Park, 5353 Sunol Blvd., Pleasanton
Aug. 21-22, 1 p.m.: Dolores Park, S.F.
Aug. 28-29, 1 p.m.: McLaren Park, S.F.