A nagging problem with “Much Ado About Nothing” has always been Shakespeare’s insistence that we accept as a happy ending a denouement that is no such thing.
But in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Much Ado” on Boston Common, director Megan Sandberg-Zakian has devised a bouncy musical coda that slyly comments on that problematic ending — and on the provisional nature of love — while remaining true to the generally festive spirit that animates her staging.
This is the 26th season of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s Free Shakespeare on the Common series, and “Much Ado” is a rare instance of a CommShakes effort not helmed by founding artistic director Steven Maler. Sandberg-Zakian’s robust, high-energy “Much Ado” adheres to Maler’s populist mission of presenting productions with high standards that remain accessible even to the Shakespeare-averse.
Unfolding in a brisk, intermissionless two hours (Mother Nature cooperated Wednesday night, conferring temperate climes on the proceedings), it is broadly acted by a cast of nearly two dozen on Lawrence E. Moten III’s elegant, two-level set, flanked by curved staircases. The show is suffused with music, and enlivened by costumes (by Kathleen Doyle) that create an onstage riot of pink, orange, green, and purple. The great John Kuntz gets to wear some of the more elaborate costumes — and early on in the show Kuntz snaps open a fan with practiced elan. Young actors, take note.
In other words, this “Much Ado” is primarily interested in delivering a good time. Apart from a few flat-footed moments, it does so.
At the heart of the play are machinations and scheming, of both the benevolent and malevolent sort, designed to steer or derail the course of love. The destination of “Much Ado,” as so often with Shakespeare, is the marriage altar. Here, that journey happens twice, with radically different results.
Ultimately, the romantic pairing we care about most is not the instantaneous swooning between Claudio, a count from Florence ably played by Erik Robles, and Hero (Rebecca-Anne Whittaker), the daughter of Leonato, the Governor of Messina (the redoubtable Remo Airaldi, in fine form).
No, it is the attraction between Hero’s quick-witted cousin Beatrice (Rachael Warren) and the equally adroit Benedick (Tia James), a lord and soldier from Padua. Their Sam-and-Diane verbal jousting thinly conceals a mutual passion that will eventually lead — with the guileful assistance of a ruse deployed by their compatriots — to a genuinely happy ending. (It’s the Claudio-Hero business that sticks in the craw.)
Sandberg-Zakian has opted to switch Benedick’s gender to female. This reimagining makes a not-insignificant statement at a time when ominous signals are emanating from the Supreme Court about the legal status of same-sex relationships. But the gender switch also serves a useful dramatic purpose. Having Beatrice and Benedick both be women sharpens the lens on the mostly male misbehavior that upends the budding relationship between Claudio and Hero.
James and Warren (an exemplary resident artist for two decades at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company) generally acquit themselves well as Benedick and Beatrice. Though their chemistry could be a bit stronger, the subtle nuances of attraction (a glance, a gesture) are harder to communicate when you’re playing before a large outdoor crowd. (It’s no accident that the most memorable CSC performances on the Common have tended to occur in the titanic roles, such as John Douglas Thompson’s Prospero last year in “The Tempest” or Will Lyman’s shattering 2015 portrayal of the title figure in “King Lear.”)
The villain of “Much Ado” — well, one of them — is Don John (Gunnar Manchester), the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Michael Underhill). A conniver of free-floating malice, Don John is a spiritual cousin to, though markedly less interesting than, the illegitimate Edmund from “King Lear.”
Don John arranges for Claudio to witness a pseudo-tryst on a balcony in which Hero appears to betray her betrothed with a lover on the night before their wedding. It is not Hero whom Claudio sees, but he is instantly willing to believe the worst of her.
Here is where “Much Ado” shifts for a time into a darker register. On their wedding day, Claudio repudiates and humiliates Hero at the altar, accusing her of unchastity (the highest of crimes) and unfaithfulness. Both Claudio and Hero’s father speak of her in the ugliest terms; indeed, dear old dad goes so far as to wish her dead.
Speaking to James’s Benedick, Warren’s Beatrice delivers a powerfully furious denunciation of the men — a tableau of solidarity by the two women with the unjustly accused Hero.
A comic tone asserts itself in the form of Dogberry, a bumbling constable who manages to get to the bottom of Don John’s nefarious scheme. I confess I have often agreed with Leonato’s description of Dogberry as “tedious,” but Debra Wise is a treat in the role. Attired in a forest-ranger-like costume as Dogberry sputters out malapropisms and dilates upon his wounded dignity, Wise appears to be having the time of her life. She made me laugh repeatedly.
Even Wise’s hijinks aren’t enough to erase the sour taste left by the play’s all-is-forgiven ending, where a man who has behaved abominably gets to marry the woman he has mistreated. At least Whittaker, as Hero, adds some withering heat to her brief remarks to Claudio before the nuptials.
And of course that musical finale helps to restore some balance to the denouement. It is buoyantly performed by the ensemble, who join voices to send a very pertinent question ringing out into the night air — one that pertains not just to the wayward couplings of “Much Ado,” but to all affairs of the heart.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. On Boston Common. Through Aug. 7. Free. Information on times and dates at www.commshakes.org.