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June 18, 2004

Much ado – with good reason

A Vancouver summer favorite, Bard on the Beach offers comical romance.

Michael Shamata, who directs the current Bard on the Beach production of Much Ado about Nothing, comments that the play reminds him "at times of the comedy of Love's Labor's Lost, at times of the tragedy of Othello, and at times of the magic of The Winter's Tale." All that gear-changing could grate, without a pro at the wheel, but Shamata's proven an able driver for this old clunker.

The Bard show is set at the end of the Second World War, with the soldiers (in dashing RCAF uniforms) coming home from war to reunite with the women they left behind. Young Claudio (Jonathan Geenan) rediscovers lovely young Hero (Lara Gilchrist), the daughter of Leonato (Russell Roberts), while Beatrice (Kerry Sandomirsky) and Benedick (Andrew Wheeler) resume the verbal sparring they've been at since he broke her heart some years back.

The spoiler in all this is Don John (David Mackay), evil brother of Don Pedro (Gerry Mackay), Prince of Aragon. Out of sheer recreational maliciousness, D.J. sets up Hero to look like a tramp – and Claudio to denounce her on their wedding day.

In many productions, Hero's disgrace is played as campy melodrama – an embarrassing bit to rush through before the inevitable happy ending. The Bard crew plays it straight, with the drama and potential tragedy of the situation every bit as strong as the comedy. The result's a story that's moving and human, as well as funny.

The 1940s setting works beautifully on many levels. There's an air of melancholy as the men return, a sense of the desperate need to be happy again after so many years of absence and loss. The swing music's lively and sentimental, and the characters can't help but break into a few playful dance steps.

The brilliant costumes (Mara Gottler) are mostly somber in color: dark suits for the men; black, maroon and mustard for the women. But everything's exquisitely cut and fitted, contrasting private luxury with public austerity.

The elegant set (David Roberts) is a garden terrace framing the real view toward English Bay. As the characters drift by with their martinis and cigarettes, it's all very Hollywood, very screwball comedy.

The performances are uniformly good, though most of the actors don't get much of a workout in the laid-back first half. Beatrice and Benedick are the showcase roles, with all the best lines and pratfalls, and the performers play them as wounded (yet comic) adults, in contrast with the more naïve (and fragile) romance of Claudio and Hero. Festival founder and artistic director Christopher Gaze is a crowd favorite as the malapropism-spouting Constable Dogberry. Josh Epstein as Balthazar has a lovely (and thankfully un-miked) voice in two ballads with lyrics by Shakespeare and music by Stephen Bulat. However, the tunes sound more like Jim Croce than Cole Porter, missing an opportunity to extend the period theme.

Much Ado about Nothing at Bard on the Beach, in repertory through Sept. 26. Tickets $16-27, available at 604-739-0559 or

Lauri Donahue is an award-winning playwright and the rebbetzin of Beth Tikvah Congregation in Richmond.