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Battle of the sexes 

Much Ado about nothing best suited to the Shakespeare-impaired

Who ever said comedy was supposed to be funny clearly hasn't seen Much Ado About Nothing at the New American Shakespeare Tavern. An unfortunate combination of too many actors on a small stage, a complex plot line and more overacting than a daytime soap opera seriously handicaps this classic comedy, back in repertory for the theater's August Threepeat.

Even with a comedy, a certain level of gravity must be upheld when presenting an intricate, time-honored work like Much Ado, and this production lacks sufficient seriousness to support the complex plot.

The production more closely resembles an Off-Broadway musical circus than a work by Shakespeare, and while it may not appeal to the purist, the show is an enjoyable option for children and the Shakespeare-impaired.

The story is a classic tale of emotional game-playing, vengeful mischief and an outright war of the sexes. Much Ado About Nothing centers around two of Shakespeare's best-loved characters -- Beatrice (Laura Cole) and Benedict (Maurice Ralston), who both enjoy nothing more than picking on each other (think "The Jeffersons" on a particularly feisty day). At a costume party announcing her cousin Hero's engagement to the young warrior Claudio, a masked Beatrice mistakes Benedict for someone else and launches into a harangue of insults about Benedict. Thus begins the tirade of the hate-filled couple who loathe the idea of happiness -- and seem destined only for each other. With some well-timed planning and naughty prodding from their trusted friends, the two eventually succumb to their fiery passions and confess their love.

The tavern is modeled after an Elizabethan theater, with small tables on the ground floor and food service to boot. While the seating arrangement adds to the ambiance, the set itself is so barren (in true Shakespearean fashion) that distraction from the stage is virtually unavoidable. One can't help but peer down from the balcony at the audience below, or twist around in the chair to view the delectable dish at the next table.

The motto of the actors appears to be "the bigger the better," and the wide eyes and over-animation again distract from the words, drawing attention to the actors' giant hand gestures. Each actor adds his or her own contemporary element to the play, from the ridiculous (but amusing) synchronized stomping of the warriors (think STOMP) returning home from battle, to the downplaying of the dowdy iambic pentameter with over-enunciation and slapstick mockery of the words. No formal accent is used, with most of the players sounding distinctly Southern. With an already confusing plot and similar names and costumes, these distracting elements result not in a spectacular performance but a chaotic spectacle.

Despite the loose nature of the show, the production is effective in providing Shakespeare for the masses. The rapid animation and over-dramatized body movements manage to engage the audience throughout the performance. Small children are especially intrigued when Beatrice leaps from the stage and hides under a table in the audience.

Laura Cole is perfectly suited as Beatrice. She embodies a prim Bette Midler, executing all her lines with a bad attitude and quick wit befitting of the role. Her interpretation of Beatrice is loud, annoying and so similar to someone you know, it's amusing. Her famous line, vowing to never marry a man "until God makes man of another metal than Earth," comes straight from her heart and all intentions of matchmaking seem lost. Cole's interaction with Maurice Ralston (Benedict) is the most engaging part of the play, as the two squabble similarly to sparring lovers on an episode of The Jerry Springer Show. Ralston steals the show with his cocky demeanor, eye-popping expressions and clear comfort on the stage and in the role. He executes his part with the air of a made man, allowing no one, especially the tireless Beatrice, to stand in his macho path toward conquering the female sex.

Also notable is Brik Berkes, a regular at the Tavern, who plays Don Pedro, the Prince of Arragon. His polished acting skills, stately manner and clever expressions add a distinct presence to each scene in which he appears.

The play is amusing at times and dull at others, but it accomplishes artistic director Jeff Watkins' goal to create interactive, communicative Shakespeare. One wonders, though, if this spectacle is what Watkins intended with his mission to express the playwright's original voice.

Much Ado About Nothing plays Aug. 19 and 24 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St., Sun. at 6:30 p.m. and Fri. at 7:30 p.m. $10-15. 404-874-5299.

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