PITTSFIELD -- Gretchen Egolf’s Beatrice doesn’t appear until roughly 10 minutes or so into Barrington Stage Company’s crisp, lucid, for the most part vigorously paced production -- with the exception of a slowing down of momentum about three-quarters of the way through -- of "Much Ado About Nothing" but when she does it’s enough to make you catch your breath; no mean feat in a show that has been sailing along quite confidently and purposefully on its own.
It’s not the faint physical resemblance to Katharine Hepburn -- director Julianne Boyd’s model, of sorts, for her 1930s screwball comedy approach to Shakespeare’s urbane, if, at times, also dark, 16th-century romantic-comedy. To be sure that evocation is present in her hair, her eyes. Egolf is too smart, too savvy, too resourceful an actress to build a performance on the foundation of someone else’s profile. This is her turn from the get-go.
If Egolf’s performance taps into our memories of any Heburn role at all it is Tracy Lord, the high-spirited Main Line heiress in "The Philadelphia Story." Egolf’s Beatrice shares Tracy’s fierce independence and pride, her assertions in a male-dominated culture, her wit, her intelligence, her audacity, her resourcefulness and, yes, her vulnerability, which she masks so very well.
It’s a pity she doesn’t get better than she gives to Christopher Innvar’s Benedick, at least not until the second act when Innvar’s generally childishly oafish Benedick matures into the kind of man Beatrice so richly deserves. Until then, when David Bishins’ beautifully crafted, gentlemanly Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, proposes to her, you can’t help but wish she’d accept.
Boyd has transplanted Shakespeare’s robust comedy to Sicily in 1936. On mainland Italy, Benito Mussolini is in charge. Don Pedro and his men, among them Benedick, are back from the war in Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia). Whatever horrors Il Duce is visiting upon his subject Italians, Sicily is quiet. The Mafia has been sent underground, Boyd explains in her program notes, and a volunteer militia, the Blackshirts, is in charge.
The old virtues of honor, respect, compassion, duty thrive, however, in the edenic setting created by scenic designer Michael Anania. It is honor and deceny that come under attack when the malevolent, contemptuous Don John (perfectly etched by Mark H. Dold) sets out to undermine the promising wedding of Hero (a credible and fresh Christina Pumariega) to the earnest, naive Claudio (a believable Babak Tafti) in a scheme that unravels in most unlikely fashion.
Beatrice and Benedick may stand at the center of "Much Ado About Nothing" but Egolf and Innvar have been surrounded by a fine supporting cast whose more noteworthy contributions, in addition to those already mentioned, include John Pasha’s bold, swaggering Borachio, Don John’s key co-conspirator; Philip Kerr’s reasoned and poignant Leonato, governor of Messina, father of Hero and uncle to Beatrice; and John Cariani who, as Dogberry, despite some vocal excesses, delivers an object lesson in physical comedy, especially one moment of inspired comedic genius, and its immediate aftermath, that produces the evening’s biggest laugh. Screwball it is.