Shakespeare Theatre of NJ has a ton of fun with outdoor ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

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PHOTOS BY SARAH HALEY

Benjamin Eakeley and Jesmille Darbouze co-star in “Much Ado About Nothing,” which is being presented outdoors in Florham Park by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through July 31.

Beatrice: I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.

Benedick: God keep your Ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.

Beatrice: Scratching could not make it worse an ‘twere such a face as yours were.

Jesmille Darbouze and Benjamin Eakeley — who co-star as Beatrice and Benedick, respectively, in the production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” that the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is currently presenting outdoors at St. Elizabeth University in Florham Park — deliver insults like these with wicked smiles and the sense that they are relishing every withering word. They and their castmates — everyone from Michael Stewart Allen, who goes gleefully over-the-top as one of Shakespeare greatest comic creations, the pompous, word-mangling constable Dogberry, to James Michael Reilly, who brings a sense of mischief and a winningly light touch to the prince, Don Pedro — seems to be having a lot of fun, and that fun is infectious.

Add a little music and dance, a handsome Italian-villa set (designed by Charlie Calvert) and a touch of chaos created by the occasional noise of airplanes flying overhead (the actors stare and point as if men and women of Shakespeare’s time, scared and mystified by these strange flying apparitions), and you’ve got an absolute gem of a show. Eleanor Holdridge directs in a pretty straightforward manner, but makes sure that every joke lands and every plot twist is easy to follow.

From left, Michael Stewart Allen, Christopher Zou and Henry Silberstein in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s annual outdoor summer production is almost always a leading candidate for statewide Top-10-of-the-Year consideration, and this one is no exception.

Beatrice and Benedick are the classic comedy’s main characters; in a scenario that has become commonplace in Hollywood romantic comedies, they start off with an intense dislike of each other, but end up madly in love.

Their friends conspire to make this happen, which leads to some great physical comedy as Beatrice and Benedick, sensing that something is going on, awkwardly hide in order to spy on their friends — who know they are being spied upon, and use this knowledge to manipulate the two further.

A second, less interesting love story involves Benedick’s friend Claudio (Christian Frost) and Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Fiona Robberson). They start off the play innocently and whole-heartedly in love, but have their relationship ruined by the evil Don John (Jeffrey Marc Alkins) and his associates Borachio (Jabari Carter) and Conrade (Christopher Zou). They do, of course, eventually discover that they were deceived, and reconcile. (Since this is a Shakespearean comedy, I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that everyone except for the villains ends up living happily ever after.)

Clockwise from left, James Michael Reilly, Christian Frost, Raphael Nash Thompson and Benjamin Eakeley in “Much Ado About Nothing.”

I thought a bit of clowning involving Dogberry adjusting the hat of his elderly assistant Verges (Richard Bourg), with Verges immediately shifting it back to its original position each time, was overdone: Dogberry and Verges kept repeating the gag so many times it stopped being funny. But this did set up a sweet, clever surprise at the end of the play, in an added wordless epilogue.

Darbouze, in addition to delivering Beatrice’s banter with delicious comic timing, shows the necessary ferocity when her character defends Hero’s honor. “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace,” she declares, with startling force, after Claudio, deceived by Don John, betrays Hero.

Is “Much Ado About Nothing” a feminist statement? Sure, you could see it that way.

But it’s also just a great love story, loaded with laughs along the way. And this production offers New Jerseyans an opportunity to experience it that shouldn’t be missed.

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Outdoor Stage at St. Elizabeth University in Florham Park, through July 31. Visit shakespearenj.org.

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