By Manning Harris

Set in the Elizabethan era in Sicily, Georgia Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” running in repertory through Aug. 4 at the Conant Center at Oglethorpe University, is one of Shakespeare’s oddest comedies.  The playwright realized, better than you or I, that life can turn on a dime, and that tragedy is the other side of comedy’s coin.  Although there is great fun and brilliant wit to enjoy in “Much Ado,” it is always just a hairsbreadth away from folly and tragedy.  All the main characters are walking a tightrope, and we are always aware that one false move can send the whole shebang careening into an abyss.  Call it nihilistic.

This conflict of energies, so to speak, creates a dramatic tension unusual for a comedy.  We need fine actors to pull off this trick, and the theatre gods have smiled, because we’ve got them. Director Richard Garner, blessed with a rich talent pool, has chosen wisely.  Benedick and Beatrice, the play’s most famous couple and most reluctant lovers, are played superbly by Joe Knezevich and Courtney Patterson.  When either of these actors is onstage (especially if they’re together), it’s a good time for the audience.

Neither character really trusts love or the other; yet they are inexorably drawn to each other—theirs is a delicious dichotomy of feeling, and it’s magnetic.  Mr. Knezevich pulls out an array of comic weapons including sight gags and slapstick; I’ve never seen him so happily abandoned.  His Benedick is merry indeed, but so is Beatrice, who comments on her own merry heart: “I thank it, poor fool, it keeps on the windy side of care.”  Ms. Patterson has an easy facility with the Bard’s language; watching her and Mr. Knezevich somehow reminded me of the young Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, with their truly acrobatic intelligence.

Leonato (Allen O’Reilly) shares his house with his daughter Hero (Ann Marie Gideon), his sister Antonia (Marianne Fraulo), and Beatrice, his niece.  Hero and Claudio (Eugene H. Russell IV) are smitten with each other.  This is fine with Don Pedro (Mark Cabus) but not so fine with his bastard brother Don John (Maxim Gukhman, who continues to impress with a compelling stage presence (we’d like to see him in bigger roles, please).  Don John correctly says of himself, “It must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.”  Poor Hero has a rough time of it because of him; the plot does thicken and the comedy quickly erodes (the other side of that coin).

It doesn’t stay eroded for long:  Along comes the “master constable” Dogberry, played by Chris Kayser, who turns a one-note comedic character into a lesson in stage comedy; he’s aided by Verges (an unrecognizable Megan McFarland).  Travis Smith plays a rather sinister, sensuous Borachio, a cohort of Don John.  It’s an excellent cast; and there are only a few moments when the pace could be ratcheted up a bit.

Kat Conley’s set (love the pool!) and especially Sydney Roberts’ costumes are lovely, important contributions here.  The music is impressive, composed by Kendall Simpson; sound designer, Clay Benning.

“Much Ado About Nothing” continues in repertory with “Illyria: A Twelfth Night Musical.”  Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is in the wings.

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Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.