The Bard’s classic comedy plays at Purnell

Feeling sad? Well then “get thee a wife!” says Benedick, a character in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, currently in performance at the Phillip Chosky Theater through next weekend. Opening the School of Drama’s 2015-16 main stage season, director Anthony McKay, a professor of acting at Carnegie Mellon, sets Shakespeare’s comedy of dueling wits and mistaken identity in the bright colors and innovative fashions of 1960’s Italy and plays up the slapstick comedy inherent in the Bard’s words to great effect.

Much Ado About Nothing is one of the more accessible and crowd-pleasing works in Shakespeare’s canon, and much of that comes from the wonderfully drawn characters and rapid-fire wordplay. McKay’s production stars senior musical theatre major Joshua Grosso as Benedick, a soldier who returns to Messina and claims to be free of any interest in the opposite sex, but nonetheless is engaged in an ongoing battle of wits with Beatrice, played by senior acting major Molly Griggs. They both claim to hate each other, but that outward disdain simply masks a deep attraction that everyone else can see. Benedick’s friend, Claudio, played by senior acting major Ben Mathews, is himself earnestly in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero, played by senior acting major Caroline Pluta. Don John, played by senior acting major Casey Cott, hatches a plan to ruin the impending marriage between Claudio and Hero in order to get revenge on his brother and friend of both Benedick and Claudio, Don Pedro, played by senior acting major Chris Garber. The play follows the redemption of honor as well as the characters’ reconciliation of their inner and outer selves, and the School of Drama’s production hits all the right notes.

Looking at the acting, all of the leads handle Much Ado’s shifts from nimble-tongued comedy to personal drama naturally and smoothly, especially Grosso. We first meet his Benedick as a broadly drawn funnyman full of machismo, and over the course of the show Grosso maneuvers the character’s growth towards accepting his inner feelings expertly. Griggs’s Beatrice spits her words sharply and always impressively allows an undercurrent of affection to bleed into her venomous insults. Pluta injects Hero with strength and confidence, a welcome variation on a character often played as timid and delicate. Cott’s Don John skulks around the stage with a constant look of spite, and often has to fight against showing his inner joy when his plan begins to work, and Hero is publicly shamed. Joseph Essig also shines as Don John’s henchman Borachio, inhabiting his character with a devilish swagger that lights up all of his scenes.

One of the more interesting choices in the production is the 1960’s Italian setting, expressed predominantly by the set and costumes. The set, designed by drama masters student Alison Gondek, features scaffolding surrounding Roman ruins, red-and-white checkered tablecloths, and a giant marquee spelling out an unfinished “Campari” advertisement. Large video screens on either side of the stage project images reflecting what’s occurring on stage, and range from vintage Vespa ads to character mug shots. A stage in the upper right corner allows live musicians to perform in various scenes, and the keyboards and electric guitar help establish a sense of time and place well. The lights in the Campari ad also react to the action of the play itself, flickering and shorting out when trust between the characters is broken and coming back to life when balance is restored to the world. Characters dress in the bright colors and thin skirts of the era, making the production a visual buffet that is never boring to look at.

Much Ado About Nothing is playing Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Phillip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center for the Arts, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are $10 for students and available at the Purnell box office. It’s an entertaining and lively show that offers an enjoyable experience whether or not you count yourself a Shakespeare fan. The characters and jokes are some of the most beloved in the English language, and McKay’s bright production adds relevance to the words without drowning the script in historical kitsch.