Given the myriad difficulties of producing Shakespeare, it is probably folly to go into a theater expecting anything approaching perfection. Most American-done Shakespeare is a mixture of assets and debits, and we should consider ourselves reasonably blessed if the former outweighs the latter.
It does in Center Stage's "Much Ado About Nothing." Although there are great gaping holes in the company -- Hero is a cipher, Claudio a dolt, and Dogberry, that master of the bungled pronouncement, little more than a wise guy with a cigar -- the production still manages to override the shortcomings. It is not quite the brazen battle of wits that "Much Ado" is generally cracked up to be. Indeed, director Stan Wojewodski Jr. seems to have pursued the more melancholic moods in the play. But it is wonderfully atmospheric in spots, and the courting of Beatrice and Benedick is played with a keen awareness of the self-doubt and the timidity that underlie the sharp repartee.
Tana Hicken and Terrance O'Quinn, as the recalcitrant lovers in question, are among the evening's distinct assets. Her Beatrice has a lot of the starchy intelligence normally associated with Katharine Hepburn, while his Benedick seems inspired less by the strutting rooster than by the playful puppy. They make an alert, unconventionally attractive pair, and quite the nicest aspect of the evening is their hesitant sizing up of one another. Most productions emphasize the words that fly between the two; these performers are equally eloquent with the silences.
The production, as a whole, eschews verbal fireworks, and instead works at creating an overall climate -- call it Chekhovian, strange as that may seem -- in which the fleeting impulses of the heart are accorded as much attention as the quick rejoinders of the mind. Wojewodski has pruned the script to two hours playing time, and set the action in 1918, which allows for a profusion of elegant costumes that any Visconti film would kill for. And the set, the facade and terraced garden of a handsome Italian palazzo, shaded by a majestic oak, is breath-catchingly beautiful.
Granted, Shakespeare's exuberance is being partially sacrificed for a kind of well-bred ennui. (Castulo Guerra, as Don John, the robust villain of the piece, is discretion itself in white tie.) But the physical production is such a handsome accumulation of post-war details and dress, and Beatrice and Benedick are such vulnerable sparring partners, that the scales eventually tip in favor of this "Much Ado."
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Stan Wojewodski Jr.; set, Wally Coberg; costumes, Robert Wojewodski; lighting, Bonnie Ann Brown; original music, Lance Mulcahy. With Tana Hicken, Peter Vogt, Emery Battis, Terrance O'Quinn, Castulo Guerra, Wendel Meldrum, Lance Davis, John Wodja. At Center Stage through Dec. 6.