SHELF LIFE- <I>Much Ado</I>: Something fun afoot in Staunton

For all his gracious and noble romanticism, Shakespeare did not sleep on clean sheets. If one considers that "nothing" (pronounced "noting," and also meaning "no thing") was a vulgar term for certain parts of the female anatomy in the 16th century, then Much Ado About Nothing greatly complicates the distinction between high and low comedy.

Despite the complexity and supreme cleverness of his manipulation of language, Shakespeare was a popular entertainer in his own time. It's a matter of great curiosity, therefore, that perhaps the greatest author of bathroom humor has today been appropriated by the cultural elite.

The reason for this is obvious: theater has been replaced by television, a trend that has blunted many individuals' capacity for delight in mere human interaction. Still, bathroom humor continues to have an immediate and universal appeal, and most people can appreciate the difference between Shakespeare read and Shakespeare performed.

For an authentic and engaging– if occasionally undignified– Shakespeare performance, one need go no further than Staunton to find the world's only replica of Shakespeare's original indoor theater, now home to The American Shakespeare Center (formerly Shenandoah Shakespeare).

A two-story structure built entirely of Virginia white oak, the Blackfriars theater is the fruit of meticulous scholarly research, a re-creation constructed with the strictest attention to detail. Barely five years after its completion, Blackfriars is respected internationally as the younger counterpart to London's Globe Theatre. In the 2005-2006 season, it will host over 300 performances of 14 different Shakespeare productions.

Much Ado About Nothing, one of the master's more popular comedies, is directed by Jaq Bessell, head of the MFA program at Mary Baldwin College. Performed by the Center's traveling troupe, the production is now back in Staunton after a season on the road. After months of practice, the company's performance is flawless.

Bessell, who was formerly head of research at the Globe, describes Blackfriars as "breathtaking" and "exquisite": "Coming from the Globe, it felt strangely familiar. There's the same quality of intimacy," she says.

Bessell is excited about the current production: "Much Ado About Nothing is a very grown-up comedy. It's a fun show, but not a frivolous show."

The play follows developments in Leonato's court in the aftermath of some battlefield victories, focusing on two love affairs, one between the valiant Claudio and Hero, the other between the incorrigible Benedick and the quick-witted Beatrice. The delight of the postwar revelry rests, however, on the fragile balance of overwrought nerves.

A misunderstanding of tragic consequences develops when these fragile nerves are exploited by the deceitful Don John; at his prompting, Claudio wrongly condemns Hero of disloyalty, and the general good will quickly evaporates.

The Blackfriars production has a subtle modern spin. The armed conflict is specifically WWII, and the actors and actresses are dressed in British war uniforms and other contemporary garb.

Bessell sees a connection between the drama and current events: "The fact that the play takes place following a war may have something to do with the way in which the young woman is crucially misunderstood­ or worse, condemned­ by characters who you would expect would have a more reasonable attitude," she says.

In the spirit of the theater's motto of "original staging, original practices," the production is performed without dramatic lighting and with only minimal stage props. As in Shakespeare's time, the players are the centerpiece, and the audience shares much of the space with them.

And Blackfriars' players, as evidenced Saturday, April 8, have no reservations about bridging the divide between actors and audience; the audience is literally a part of the performance. Here is Shakespeare at his most authentic: a rollicking, engaging dramatic experience in which audience members are as much a dramatic resource for the players as they are the object of the playwright's social satire.

In short, in Staunton this spring, the cast is offering much ado about something quite wonderful.