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Queens Shakespeare casts The Bard in reality show

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William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing (or The Real World: Messina)” is supposed to be a comedy, and it does have its silly moments, but the production of this play at Queens Shakespeare made me mad. It has nothing to do with the acting or directing, which are excellent, but the story’s misogyny is disgusting. Will probably knew it was disgusting too, even subconsciously, for in “Much Ado” he has also created one of the great female characters in Beatrice, played here by the wondrous, Hilary Swankish Sheira Feuerstein.

Director Jonathan Emerson imagines the play as an episode out of “The Real World,” (see subtitle above), with TV screens playing on either end of the stage, and digital camera operators forever present, even, at some points, stopping the actors’ progress. Blackberries, cell phones and iPods are also much in evidence. The effect is charming, though it doesn’t blunt the nastiness of what happens to Hero.

And if you don’t know the story, here’s what happens, to Hero and others: Leonato is the governor of Messina, with a daughter named Hero and a mouthy niece named Beatrice. They’re visited by Don Pedro and his two pals, Benedick and Claudio. Benedick swears he’s a confirmed bachelor, as Beatrice also swears she’ll never marry (and she has good reason not to, as we shall see). Of course they fall in love amongst much rapier-sharp banter and with a lot of help from their friends, though they don’t know it until late in the game.

Claudio falls in love with Hero, but Don Pedro’s bastard half-brother Don John wants to mess things up. Since Shakespeare had as much of a thing about evil illegitimate half-brothers as he had for women’s virtue, he has Don John and his henchmen mess things up a great deal. They cause Claudio and Don Pedro to see who they think is Hero and some clandestine lover at her window after making sure her roommate Beatrice is away, even though it’s really Margaret, Hero’s maid, and Don John’s sycophant Borachio.

Claudio not only renounces Hero but does so at the moment of what should be their wedding. The accusations from all the males present (save the friar and Benedick) are so vicious that Hero faints dead away at the altar — it’s as if all the pent-up rage these guys have ever felt against women is unleashed on her. Friar Francis, who was supposed to marry Hero and Claudio, suggests to the distraught Leonato that he announce that Hero has died of her shame, Claudio and the Don having stormed from the church before the lady could be revived.

In the meantime, they’ll find out who slandered Hero, or, if the rumors are true, send her quietly to a nunnery. Of course, Hero’s good name is restored, the miscreants are dealt with, the marriages go on. Yet one has the queasy feeling that Hero’s will be miserable and she is too yielding to return the misery in kind. Beatrice and Benedick, with their lovely love/hate dynamic, will be just fine.

People could write volumes about this madness, and have.

But the company is faultless. That the actors not only handle Shakespeare’s intricate, sparkling wordplay without a stumble but actually revel in them would be enough. Feuerstein’s smart, vivacious, sarcastic Beatrice is backed up by Matthew Coonrod as an adorably cynical and silver-tongued Benedick, and though one can’t like Claudio after his public humiliation of Hero and you know he’s going to be a lousy husband, Daniel Koenig, with great dark yearning eyes, is excellent.

The Lennonesque Zack Locuson’s Don Pedro is just as good, and you feel for him after Beatrice rejects his marriage proposal because she just doesn’t think he’s serious. Still, you can’t like him either in the end. Even when he thinks Hero’s dead he takes the whole business rather too lightly. Maria Smith projects goodness and sweetness as the mistreated Hero, and we can at least hope that her devoted cousin can put some starch in her spine.

Lawrence Lesher nearly steals the show as the constable Dogberry, with his insanely funny malapropisms (“O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”) Heidi Zenz, a pretty young woman, actually makes you believe she’s Verge, Dogberry’s elderly male headborough. She also makes a touching Ursula, the other of Hero’s maids. Nikki Bohm projects a dangerous sexiness as both a Messenger and one of The Watch. At one point she wields a riding crop, which she uses to great comic effect.

Andrew Stephen Johnson makes an appropriately sullen Don John, who must be a forerunner of King Lear’s Edmund; you can imagine the two of them on some prison island together, commiserating. Alex Simmons and Ari Lew are properly oily as his henchmen Borachio and Conrad, and Ashley Adelman makes a nicely disreputable Margaret.

Antonia Villalon is memorable in her triple roles as a messenger, the watch and a sexton, and Patrick Mahoney is good as both the friar and Leonato’s brother Antonio. One wants to despise Timothy J. Cox’s’ otherwise jolly Leonato for his willingness to believe the worst about his daughter and only child, but Cox too well conveys his bewilderment and grief as well as his contempt. He can’t help that he lives in a time when an unmarried woman’s virginity was the sum total of her worth.

Emerson and his crew make good use of the little space, both onstage and in the area before it in the Bowne Street Community Church’s parish hall, and he doesn’t gloss over the story’s difficulties. For example, after Hero’s restoration he won’t allow her unalloyed happiness at being reunited with the faithless Claudio, and at one point after their marriage they sit glumly on opposite sides of the stage apron.

The production makes do with very little: plaster statues of lions, garlands of flowers, ropes of pearls, glittering jewels (kudos to stage and properties manager Tara Schmitt), and a modern living room set and lighting design by Emerson and Joseph Sebring.

Queens Shakespeare makes the best of this troublesome play. It’ll be at The Bowne Street Community Church till November 14.

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