Patricia Harrelson

Beatrice and Benedick steal their own show in the Murphys Creek Theater production of "Much Ado About Nothing," and Shakespeare would have approved.

Each summer, the Murphys Creek company puts together a production of the bard's work to present at the Cornelius B. Stevenot Memorial Amphitheater. This year Misty Day and Clocky McDowell, as Beatrice and Benedick respectively, turn the production into a bona fide romantic comedy worthy of a hot summer night.

For those unfamiliar with this particular Shakespeare comedy, "Much Ado About Nothing" begins as a group of soldiers return to Messina, Sicily, to lodge with the wealthy Leonato. Upon their arrival, Leonato's niece, Beatrice, resumes a long standing battle of barbs with bachelor warrior Benedick while Leonato's daughter Hero becomes smitten with another soldier, young Claudio.

From here, you will like recognize many of Shakespeare's familiar plot points: false accusations of infidelity ("Othello"), a fake death masterminded by a friar ("Romeo and Juliet"), and the witty sparring of reluctant lovers ("Taming of the Shrew").

It is the latter point upon which Day and McDowell shine. Superbly matched foils, the two command the stage, hurling flirtatious insults and engaging in sophisticated repartee until they finally give into their magnetic attraction.

The chemistry between the two is delicious. It doesn't hurt that their delivery of the Shakespearean language that some find foreign and confusing is draped with unmistakeable gestures and expressions.

Day and McDowell definitely know how to have fun with Shakespeare, which makes it doubly fun for the audience.

The other pair of lovers provide the high drama around which the plot unfolds. (My teenaged date, by the way, commented that she thought this degree of drama only happened in high school.)

Hero is played by Deanna Gandy with maidenly charm, and Robert Zellers gives a vital performance as the duped Count Claudio by flipping effortlessly from enamored to revengeful to contrite.

The rest of the cast is also solidly composed, but standouts are Tyler Mattson as the hilarious malaprop Dogberry and Matthew Hobgood as the night watchman.

Mattson initially appears as Don John, which at first was disappointing. Though he made a fine mean-spirited Don John, I thought the role a waste of his considerable talent for the absurd. But I thought too soon, for when Mattson hits the stage as the addled Dogberry with a key-stone cop ensemble, the world rights itself and hilarity ensues.

Four men - Mattson, Hobgood, Tom Vannuci and Chris Mills - give the production the requisite dose of comic relief, with Hobgood going over-the-top against Mattson in garnering laughs. Later Hobgood and Mills keep up the comedy as bumbling watchmen spying on Borachio and Conrade who have put into motion Don John's plan to besmirch Hero.

The spying and eavesdropping choreography for the watchmen as well as for Beatrice and Benedick is superb and another way in which these actors display their considerable talent.

Graham Green is effective as the nobleman, Leonato, and Anthony DePage offers a solid stage presence as the goodly Don Pedro. David DeJesus is convincing as both Borachio and Friar Francis.

I was partial to Ceara Purcell's depiction of a defiant, female Conrade. Purcell also lets her hair down as the character Ursula. The women's ensemble is rounded out with the lovely Lauren Nicole as Hero's gentlewoman, Margaret, who unwittingly compromises her mistress, while Mike Bennett completes the male ensemble as the Sexton.

Director Graham Scott Green has collected a contingency of actors who clearly thrive in Shakespeare's world. Green's decision to hold true to the Elizabethan context, rather than modernize or adapt, fuels the pleasure. Not all thespians have an appetite for Shakespeare, but this crew does.

While the cast is cohesive and focused, Green might have tightened the script a bit for the sake of today's electronic media attention span. He is nevertheless totally in sync with the material and the surroundings in creating a set that is rustically elegant with multiple tiers that facilitate rendering a multi-layered story.

Costume designer Hannah Mefford arrays the actors in brightly colored, elaborate apparel, and of course most of the men are adorned in white hose, giving a nice Elizabethan feel to the production.

Romantic comedies in general, and Shakespeare's in particular, call for the players "to suffer love."

As Bendick tells Beatrice, "Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceable." I doubt an audience would have it any other way, for it is in their effervescent sparring that the beloved are most merry.

"Much Ado About Nothing" plays Friday and Saturday nights through July 20. For tickets, call 728-8422.