There’s Shakespeare, and then there’s Shakespeare at A Noise Within. No In The Park, Under The Stars, or 99-Seat Plan Shakespeare guarantees the consistent excellence that A Noise Within’s team of world-class actors, directors, and designers deliver, time after time after time. Their current mounting of Much Ado About Nothing is no exception.

Like every Shakespeare comedy, Much Ado centers upon pairs of lovers, this time Benedick (JD Cullum) and Beatrice (Torri Higgenson), and Claudio (Brandon Hearnsberger) and Hero (Lindsay Gould).  The latter pair meet cute, fall madly in love at first sight and, wasting no time, make plans to be married in a week.  As their wedding day approaches, the twosome hatch a scheme with Don Pedro (Patrick O’Connell), the prince of Aragon, to trick the feuding Beatrice and Benedick into falling for each other by making each believe that the other is already head over heels. Meanwhile, the prince’s illegitimate brother, Don John (Stephen Rockwell), wracked with jealousy over Don Pedro’s power and his friendship with Claudio, makes his own plans to prevent Claudio and Hero’s wedding from ever taking place.

Though the frescos which adorn the walls of Kurt Boetcher’s exquisite set situate us in the heart of Sicily, director Michael W. Murray eschews an Elizabethan design by setting Much Ado in the early 1900s, thereby allowing costume designer Soojin Lee to create gowns and hats which give the production a gorgeous, distinctly Merchant-Ivory look. (Think Howard’s End and A Room With A View.) With Ken Booth’s dazzling lighting shining down like the Italian sun and Benjamin Haber Kamine’s sound design evoking the outdoor setting with bird songs et al, this is a Much Ado About Nothing which dazzles the eyes and ears in equal measure.

Cullum gives a multi-colored tour-de-force comedic performance as Benedick, whose transformation from bickering fop to love-struck romantic hero is a joy to behold.  Director Murray has come up with some delightful comic bits for Cullum, as when Benedick hides behind a bush, set conveniently on rollers, thereby allowing him to scoot forward and eavesdrop up close and personal, though the raked stage means that the bush sometimes has a mind of its own. Hearing Cullum’s voice crack when he attempts to say “love” and “marry” is a joy in and of itself.

As Beatrice, Higginson proves an adept comedienne whose patrician beauty evokes both Hepburns.  Cullum and Higginson make Benedick and Beatrice’s chemistry crackle with the same kind of chemistry that made Harry and Sally’s transformation from enemies to lovers such a delight.

Gould is a lovely, piquant Hero, and Hearnsberger’s charismatic Claudio introduces a talented young actor with plenty of romantic leads in his future. (Like his castmates, Hearnsberger is adept at making Shakespeare sound as natural as today’s English.)

Apollo Dukakis (Leonato), O’Connell, Rockwell, Steve Weingartner (Borachio), and Shaun Anthony (Conrade) do the same splendid work that has marked their other A Noise Within appearances.  Peter Larney, reviewed here as Pete Scherer in last summer’s CTL production of Twelfth Night, is a fine, stalwart Balthasar and doubles as a Member Of The Watch.  Jonathon Lamer is another standout as Father Francis.

Stealing every scene they are in are Mark Bramhall and Mitchell Edmonds as Dogberry and Verges. Like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Touchstone in As You Like It, Dogberry is one of the great Shakespearean “fools,” and Bramhall milks his every slapstick moment for all its worth. In the smaller but almost equally hilarious role of Verges, Edmonds manages to get laughs with actions as simple as pulling a bench from one spot to another.

Completing the cast in fine fashion are Abigail Caro (Ursula/Sexton), Danielle Doyen (Margaret), Heather Grace (Sarah), Hugh Mason (Antonio), and Alicia Bruckman and Maxwell Schneller (Members Of The Watch).

Adding that extra A Noise Within touch to Much Ado About Nothing is Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s exhilarating choreography, which makes it seem at times that we are watching Much Ado The Musical.  Act One features a quite spectacular masked ball sequence, and later there’s even a Macarena-esque moment that’s a particular treat.

Wig, hair, and makeup are all superb, courtesy of Monica Lisa Sabedra. Susan K. Coulter serves as stage manager, assisted by Ashleigh Hannah.

No matter how many times you’ve seen Much Ado About Nothing, A Noise Within makes it worth seeing again.  Thursday’s audience was composed of everyone from teens to seniors, and the high schoolers seemed to be having every bit the ball that their more experienced theatergoing elders were having, if not more so. Shakespeare is indeed alive and well and living in Glendale, thanks to A Noise Within.

A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Blvd., Glendale. Through May 21.

–Steven Stanley
March 25, 2010
                                                                   Photos: Craig Schwartz

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