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Much Ado About Nothing

At Startford, Conn., through Sept. 8

By Caldwell Titcomb

A warm, romantic production of Much Ado About Nothing has got the Group 20 Players off to an impressive start in their seventh season. Their approach to the play is avowedly different from customary ones; and this approach took a good deal of courage.

Much of the credit must go to director Ellis Rabb, who has joined the company for the first time. Rabb is one of the finest Shakespearean actors anywhere; though still a very young man, he has had more Shakespearean experience than most veterans, and is one of a handful who can boast of having acted in all thirty-seven of the Bard's plays. But this is the first time I have been able to appraise his skill as a director.

Now Much Ado is an uneven work; it shows Shakespeare at his strongest and at his weakest. The basic story deals with jealousy-inspired treachery--a serious theme the playwright would later return to in Othello and Cymbeline. But at this time, Shakespeare was just casting about for a convenient skeleton to flesh. The whole business of the tragic slandering and the ensuing deception he took from older sources, and clearly wasted little effort on; his treatment of them is decidedly thin. The greatness of the play lies in what Shakespeare himself invented: the dazzing comedy of Beatrice and Benedick, who "never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them"; and the inspired farce of Dogberry, Verges, and the night watch. (When he used Much Ado as the basis of his last opera, Berlioz had no trouble in discerning the gold; and he entitled the result Beatrice and Benedict.)

Most productions of the play whip up the comedy and farce furiously, and abridge or soft-pedal the Claudio-Hero plot. Other things being equal, this may be the best solution--it is certainly the easiest. But Rabb has favored or scrimped no element in the play; he has lavished as much care on the serious as on the comic and farcical aspects. Consequently we can best see the play as it really is: when the lines soar, this production soars; when the writing flags, so does the production. The director's decision was daring, dangerous, and difficult; and I doff my derby in docile deference.

Rabb and the players are fortunate to have the absolutely stunning, three-story set, complete with lanterns and garden swing, designed by William D. Roberts. And it takes Gilbert Hemsley's lighting very well, abetted in one night scene by four real flambeaux.

As Beatrice and Benedick, Rosemary Harris and Barry Morse make a strong pair of unwilling lovers, spitting out their wit with clarity and verve. Miss Harris properly "speaks poniards, and every word stabs"; and Morse "hath a heart as sound as a bell and his tongue is the clapper."

In the thankless role of the chased and chaste Hero, Chase Crosley is lovely indeed. Her suitor Claudio, in the hands of George Grizzard, is frankly poor; he does not seem to know what he is saying, and cannot approach the classical diction required of a Shakespearean "proper squire." Robert Blackburn is a cheerful Don Pedro; William Swetland is a good enough Leonato; and Sydney Sturgess is comely as the gentlewoman Margaret.

Stanley Jay is drolly Pickwickian as the head-borough Verges. But Ralph Drischell has extracted little of the meat from the self-inflated, malapropistic Dogberry. Robert Evans fails to convey the villainy of Don John, who openly proclaims his evilness several times to the audience; he is nothing worse than childishly petulant. John Brockington's friar also needs more work.

In smaller parts, Fletcher Coleman is a compelling Borachio; and Meredydd Evans sings Balthasar's songs pleasantly. Charles Lewis is notable in the double roles of a messenger and the sexton. And little Hayward Morse adds a lot as a boy in the governor's household.

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