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Shakespeare on the Ridge has returned for a fifth season with free performances of a 90-minute version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” As expected, the production is very well done, and a work that often plays as a breezy comedy about two sharp-witted suitors instead challenges in surprising ways.
 
The ARC Theater Company has grown up before Evanston’s eyes over the past five years. Founded in 2010 by several soon-to-graduate DePaul theater students, the company, along with the Ridgeville Park District program director Michael Miro, conceived of Shakespeare on the Ridge. Evanston is far the richer for it.
 
A small group such as ARC, and the limited space provided by the Ridgeville stage, provide a particular challenge with a play such as “Much Ado.” There are too many characters in the original work. Director Mark Boergers, who also worked on adapting the script, said the company tries to avoid casting the same actor as more than one character.

The result is blended characters – “Much Ado’s” Don John, for example, takes on the role of himself and his two minions. The hybrid character presents a very different role for Teddy Booth, one of ARC’s founders. His comic timing, delivery and movements shined last year in “Twelfth Night” and in earlier years.
 
But Don John “is of a very melancholy disposition.” Mr. Booth is an extremely talented artist, and with expression and movement gives a bitter, angry and defeated bastard brother of Don Pedro the prince. Blending the three villains into one, though, highlights the nonsensical nature of the plot to torpedo the marriage of Claudio, Don Pedro’s youthful military champion, and Hero, governor Leonata’s daughter.
 
Yes, that’s Leonata. Natalie Sallee, excellent as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and Maria in Twelfth Night, plays Hero’s mother in a role written as a male Leonato. The change further highlights the craziness of the reactions of Shakespeare’s characters to his plots.
 
The audience has a hard time believing that a mother would so readily cast aside her only daughter with, “Hence from her! Let her die.” The change forces the question, though, why we would more easily accept such reaction from a father.

Central to any performance of “Much Ado” is the verbal sparring between Beatrice, the orphaned niece of Leonata, and Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s “lords.” ARC veteran Joe Flynn is again outstanding as Benedick, believably cycling through anger, love, comedy and surprise. The decision to blend his character with the Friar turns him into the play’s most important hero and moral center – and the only one here with any common sense.
 
Beatrice, played by ARC newcomer Alison Plott, is a more challenging proposition. In many ways, the plays most important line is her, “Kill Claudio,” as it reveals her newly proclaimed love for Benedick to be something different than it initially appears. She stands by her shamed cousin Hero so completely she is prepared to kill the shamer. “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace!” she says.
 
Her over-the-top reaction is one of many in the play. All the characters create much ado out of nothing throughout. Claudio, played with wonderful exuberance by newcomer Jeff Kurysz, makes no sense – and never has. He falls deeply in love almost immediately, then just as immediately believes – not once but twice – that he has been betrayed by those closest to him. Autumn Teague as Hero and Andrew Mehegan as Don Pedro carry their scenes very well.
 
Another blended character, Margaret, played with a near perfect mix of saucy humor and class warfare villainy by Kelsy Phillips, once again exhibits the head- scratching nonsense that the plot forces its characters to believe. In this version, Margaret helps hatch a plan to shame Hero, a plan impossible in execution (how can Don John take Claudio and Don Pedro to Hero’s window and be in the window with Margaret at the same time?) and yet she is found to act “against her will.” Phillips’ Margaret does nothing against her will.
 
In the original, the moral center is not Benedick, but Dogberry, the constable, and his lieutenant, Verges. James McGuire, resplendent in tight black shorts and bright red shirt, does his best to steal the show. Mary Tilden’s eager, youthful Verges is equally good. The fact that these two can see through the paper-thin efforts of Don John shows that this collection of unlikeable, irredeemable characters really do create Much Ado About Nothing.
 
Shakespeare on the Ridge continues Saturday and Sunday evenings at 7 p.m. through Aug. 3. Mudlark Theater, for actors 6-18, will present a 70-minute version of the same play Aug. 1- 3.