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USF’s ‘Much Ado’ strikes skillful balance of storylines

As one of “Much Ado About Nothing’s” main characters admits as the play hurtles toward its happy ending, “man is a giddy thing.”

Truer words were never spoken — at least when it comes to the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s giddy new production of an old Shakespeare favorite.

Despite its perennial crowd-pleasing status, getting “Much Ado” right is a much trickier business than it seems — because the Bard, in his infinite wisdom, doesn’t always keep the play’s star couple center stage.

So delightful is the battle-of-the-sexes badinage between Beatrice and Benedick that we’d love to spend all of our time with these forever-feuding, fated-to-be-mated characters.

But “Much Ado” makes us do time with another, more innocent couple, whose rocky road to happiness powers the play’s dramatic engine.

Happily, “Much Ado” director David Ivers (who portrayed a delightfully recalcitrant bachelor Benedick in the festival’s 2010 production) deftly balances both storylines to create a cohesive, compelling whole.

This production’s rueful romantics (Kim Martin-Cotten as a sassy, brassy Beatrice, Ben Livingston as pugnacious Benedick) are older than most “Much Ado” pairs, giving their world-weary characters a rueful sense of last-chance yearning.

Augmenting their scintillating, spiteful exchanges, Ivers links the skittish characters through slapstick physicality, contrasting them with their younger, more conventional counterparts: Beatrice’s cousin Hero (a graceful Leslie Lank) and Benedick’s fellow soldier Claudio (Luigi Sottile, lending welcome substance to what can be a blank, thankless role).

Through no fault of their own, Hero and Claudio’s love-at-first-sight happiness is almost destroyed by a villainous rumor — and ultimately restored with more than a little help from a crew of hilariously bumbling local officials, led by the word-mangling constable Dogberry (John Plumpis, who may be even funnier here than he is as “The Cocoanuts’ ” resident Groucho Marx) and none other than festival founder Fred C. Adams as the addled, decrepit Verges, who’s forever on the verge of toppling over.

Then again, that may be the key to “Much Ado’s” enduring appeal: the fun of watching people, forever on the verge of toppling over, regain their balance and start dancing through life.

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