There’s a sweet scene early on in Quill Theatre’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” where a gracious prince, Don Pedro (Iman Shabazz), offers himself as a husband to the defiantly single Beatrice (Donna Marie Miller). The spark of honest appreciation that Miller shows in her gentle rebuke of the regal Shabazz represents the power inherent in this play that, while a comedy, has some strong emotional underpinnings.
There are several similarly small but powerful interludes. But unfortunately, they’re interspersed among too many other moments that meander or otherwise miss their mark. While there are a few solid laughs to be had, the most memorable scenes are the surprisingly dramatic, even tragic ones.
Compared with other Shakespearean entanglements, the “Much Ado” plot is relatively straightforward. A nobleman, Leonato (Jay Millman), agrees to the engagement of his daughter, Hero (Claire Wittman), to Claudio (Josh Gutierrez), a lord in the entourage of Don Pedro. But Don Pedro’s bastard brother, Don John (Charley Raintree), is bent on wrecking everything and devises a plan to make Hero appear a wanton slut.
Meanwhile, Leonato’s niece Beatrice carries on a battle of verbal jabs and put-downs with another of Don Pedro’s lords, Benedick (David White). It’s clear to all that Beatrice and Benedick are made for each other and many ruses are devised to trick the sparring pair into realizing their love for one another.
As directed by Foster Solomon, the cast works through the machinations well enough, but with less of the quippy clever language or antic good humor than one might expect. Miller is delightful as Beatrice, and White strikes a good balance between charm and wit. But only when the focus turns to Raintree and his character’s clever henchman, Borachio (Adrian Grantz), does the dynamism tick up several notches. After Raintree and Grantz are done chewing the scenery, the scenes that follow pale in comparison.
Part of the problem here is endemic to the text. The Bard may be a genius but “Much Ado” has issues both big and small. The mix of slapstick scenes and more somber ones can be uncomfortable, particularly after Hero is jilted at the altar. Much of the plot hinges on Hero but her character is the least defined of them all.
Solomon cannot overcome these deficiencies but does get energetic performances from Joshua Daniels as the comic constable, Dogberry, and from Dean Knight as a friar who is key to the story’s happy ending. The costumes designed by Ruth Hedberg adequately convey a Renaissance vibe, but some of the fake facial hair on display is a distraction rather than an enhancement to a couple of the characters.
The selling point for “Much Ado” is usually the playful banter between Beatrice and Benedick or perhaps the comic buffoonery of Dogberry. With the first official production from Quill Theatre, the newly branded union of Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre, the scene I’ll remember is Beatrice’s “Oh were I a man” speech, passionately lamenting her inability to avenge her cousin. That’s not a bad thing, but certainly unexpected. S
Quill Theatre’s “Much Ado About Nothing” plays at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, through June 28. For tickets and information visit QuillTheatre.org.