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Rachael Warren (center left) as Beatrice and Tia James (center right) as Benedick in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

Women get equal time in love and war in Boston version of ‘Much Ado’

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Women get equal time in love and war in Boston version of ‘Much Ado’

Rachael Warren (center left) as Beatrice and Tia James (center right) as Benedick in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Photo: Nile Scott Studios

BOSTON – Could Megan Sandberg-Zakian be the perfect director to capture the light and darkness of Shakespeare’s classic, “Much Ado about Nothing”?

The Armenian-Jewish author of “There Must Be Happy Endings: On a Theater of Optimism and Honesty” has spoken of “20th century genocides on both sides of my heritage.” Perhaps her book and her heritage have influenced her light and dark staging of this disarming comedy for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, free for audiences at Boston Common.

A festive curtain and high-energy reveling may lead some theatergoers to see this revival as a mere good time, but Sandberg-Zakian makes some telling points about women and honesty in relationships along the way.

Set after the 1991 Operation Desert Storm, this edition intriguingly identifies Padua lord and soldier Benedick as a woman – a choice that should call attention to the fact that many women commanded units during the Gulf War. Designer Kathleen Doyle has smartly clothed Benedick and fellow returning soldiers Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon, and Claudio, a count of Florence, in military brown and berets. Beatrice, who fights a “merry war” of words with Benedick throughout the play, sports a sharp pink suit at one moment and elegant outfits at others.

If Rachael Warren as Beatrice and Tia James as Benedick bring vivid playfulness to their characters’ witty exchanges, James has all of Benedick’s principle, in contrast to Don Pedro and especially Claudio’s outrageous turning on the latter’s love Hero in the absence of any real evidence of infidelity. Michael Underhill is strikingly self-assured as Don Pedro and Erik Robles properly impulsive as Claudio. Given that Claudio travels with Don Pedro, the former’s grieving in Spanish (when he believes that Hero is dead) is a clever touch. Remo Airaldi is a standout as Messina governor and Hero’s father Leonato. Airaldi makes Leonato’s tirade against innocent Hero as chilling as Capulet’s emotional abusiveness with his daughter in “Romeo and Juliet.” Rebecca Anne Whittaker is movingly vulnerable at the play’s darkest moments – so much so that it should be difficult for audience members to fully forgive the men who torment her at one moment and embrace her at another.

By comparison, the actual villains (though Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato have their villainous moments) are a mixed bag. Gunnar Manchester needs more fire as Don Pedro’s brother, Don John. By contrast, Sarah Corey balances follower Borachio’s strong scheming and eventual truthfulness on being caught. At the same time, Debra Wise is a hoot as Dogberry, the malapropism-rich Constable, though the Dogberry entourage has lost its comic punch. John Kuntz makes the most of fanning and flamboyance as Leonato’s ‘’brother” Antonio – though his later moments in more conservative attire prove more affecting. Jon Vellante brings fine phrasing and resonance to Don Pedro attendant Balthasar’s reflective song, “Sigh No More.”

Equally memorable are the gymnastically agile moves of the matchmaking groups and Warren and James as Beatrice and Benedick recognizing their feelings for each other. Kudos goes to Levi Philip Marsman’s choreography and movement coaching here as well as for revelry. Designer Lawrence E. Moten III bring gold-dominated elegance to Leonato’s mansion.

Sandberg-Zakian gives the comedy’s women equal time in love and war. The subtext about the women being more truthful than the men in the play is convincing. Enjoy the generally strong acting and the cheery moments, but do not lose sight of the darker passages. The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Much Ado About Nothing” really has something to say, and it does so well.

“Much Ado About Nothing,” Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Parkman Bandstand on the Boston Common at 8 p.m. through Aug. 7. Free. Visit commshakes.org

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