A Noise Within’s production of Much Ado About Nothing somehow has the power to manipulate the weather on a lackluster night in Glendale, CA. Spring season it may be, but a sizzling summer in Sicily is what the audience pays a timeshare for. Something is in the air.
The breeding ground for humor is always green and warm. It must melt away inhibitions and have an orchard in which to play tricks. The best way to explore the Bard’s comedic scope is to literally create as much room as possible for the actors to run amuck. Scenic designer Kurt Boetcher and lighting designer Ken Booth do exactly that from the rustic cobblestoned inlay backdrops to the hanging lanterns and crawling branches. Alternating from splashes of green to spicy oranges, there’s no mistaking the electric current running through these stems and vines.
Entering stage right and hot off the heels of war, Don Pedro (Patrick O’Connell) and his merry men seek refuge at the home of Leonato (Apollo Dukakis), Governor of Messina. Dukakis is the most esteemed resident artist at A Noise Within, while the caramel voiced O’Connell hails from Broadway and Juilliard. Both exude controlled ease on the stage, offering performances that appear seasoned and effortless.
This is Canadian and Gemini Award-winning actress Torri Higginson’s A Noise Within debut, and her Beatrice is cunning (if not a bit kooky). With a swish and a sway of her gauzy shawl, she slinks around the stage like she’s got a flask hidden somewhere on her person. This tall order doesn’t look drunk; she could just be tipsy from a cool glass of cynicism garnished with hints of denial and bitterness. Her jabs and smiles are on a continuous shuffle, almost as if this Beatrice is taking great pains to not let Benedick’s past snub overrule her staged emotions. Higginson’s Beatrice is stellar because she tries so much to not care. The women in the audience must be a stone’s throw away from following her out the door should she have chosen to flip Benedick the bird and catch the next boat out of Messina.
JD Cullum’s shrill voice piercing the air is the first sign of Benedick. My eyes frantically scanned the room for a large brute, but found the doppleganger of John Astin’s Gomez instead.
This is perhaps a testament to director Michael Murray’s exceptional casting since Cullum accepted the role at the director’s behest. Not a newcomer to ANW, but a veteran of film and stage, Cullum Grouchoes across the floor, adjusting wrist cuffs and swinging his jacket over his shoulder like a cape. You half-expect him to twirl his mustache, click his heels and slap Beatrice across the derriere for the hell of it, but that would be too simple. Cullum respects Shakespeare’s humor and follows the text’s intentions per original prescription—to be acted for an audience. This is Cullum’s greatest ally.
The masquerade scene, choreographed by A Noise Within founder Julia Rodriquez-Elliott, is where our egghead Benedick disguises his voice to fool Beatrice during the dance, and in all seriousness, he sounds like Borat with a head cold. The dancing pair looks quite mismatched with Higginson an inch or two taller than Cullum, but there’s chemistry between them, and their physical differences serve to magnify the similarities in their personalities. After all, they aren’t supposed to be the perfect couple. Leave that to Hollywood casting directors.
Benedick’s “Down with Love” campaign against the besotted Claudio’s (Brandon Hearnsberger) intention to marry Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Lindsay Gould), is met with no support and is trampled when the famous “He said, she said” trick convenes in the orchard. This is where the magic happens. It’s also where Cullum plays a shrub and singlehandedly charms the audience with his slapstick mannerisms. Higginson achieves this in the same fashion, ducking and rolling on the outskirts of the stage, crawling over the front row of audience feet in order to eavesdrop on Hero and the other ladies’ gossiping about Benedick’s unrequited love.
Costuming takes precedence when the villainous Don Jon (Stephen Rockwell) casts a shadow over the stage with his black suit and sobers up the always-imbibing characters with fellow undertaker-like henchmen Conrade (Shaun Anthony) and Borachio (Steve Weingartner). Costume designer Soojin Lee updates the garb from confining Elizabethan dress to a WWI-era European melting pot. The exact time period eludes us since the men look like they’re on vacation a la The Great Gatsby, while the women could pass for suffragists in a picket line. A wrinkle here and there can be overlooked. Beachfront Messinian weather can be humid, right?
After Claudio’s shaming of Hero at the wedding ceremony, which is a trifle too impassioned and exaggerated on Hearnsberger’s behalf, the play per usual takes a sharp turn and all humor and lightness is lost until the last act. Dogberry (Mark Bramhall) and Verge (Mitchell Edmonds), along with their band of boobs, redeem the comic relief. They essentially pick up the laughs where Benedick leaves off after his declaration of love for Beatrice chastens him into challenging the slanderous Claudio for playing a part in Hero’s “death.”
Shakespeare’s battle of the sexes is always a delight to watch, given an understanding of the historical context within which it lives. But the prize of love is not a prize at all here. When Beatrice and Benedick are at last coupled in the final scene—with a song and a dance to boot—one can’t help but feel a little reminiscent for the death stares and venom spewing in the first two acts. A little unresolved sexual tension never hurt anyone—well, except maybe Hero. Poor thing.
Much Ado About Nothing runs February 27 – May 21, 2010 at A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale, CA 91204. Information can be found at http://www.anoisewithin.org/index.html.