Shakespeare Orange County closes out its summer season with a sparkling production of Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING that time travels its characters to Messina, Italy in the 1920's. There amid the sultry Mediterranean breeze, Jazz Age music, and stylish flapper frocks, Cupid and his henchmen and women conspire to ensure that love prevails using any tactics necessary. While some he simply kills with arrows, like young Hero and Claudio, others like Beatrice and Benedick, need traps to secure their romantic coupling. And therein lies the fun.
When you have a Benedick as delicious as Michael Nehring and a Beatrice as keen and lively as Evelyn Carol Case, it's all you can do to keep up with the witty banter that flies back and forth like a shuttlecock. Nehring is a fun-loving and boisterous charmer with a robust sense of humor who cannot resist baiting Case at every turn. She likewise throws his words back at him with a flick of her long lashes and a scintillating smile. It's a recipe for success that makes SOC's MUCH ADO irresistible.
Beatrice and Benedick delight in their ongoing war of words, both eschewing the normal views of love and marriage, and also continually professing their distaste for each other. When Beatrice's cousin Hero (Malia Wright) becomes engaged to Benedick's buddy Claudio (Shaun Anthony), their friends decide to take matters into their own hands and trick Beatrice and Benedick into confessing their love by convincing each that the other is secretly in love with them.
Two hilarious garden scenes full of outrageous physical comedy facilitate the deception as Benedick eavesdrops on Claudio, Don Pedro (Goran Tenney Norquist) and the men, and likewise when Beatrice overhears Hero and the women. Bushes that move and unconventional hiding places that leave the unsuspecting pair in compromising positions add to a game that would do a schoolboy proud. Director Thomas F. Bradac cleverly fills the entirety of his playing area with meticulous staging that delivers maximum laughs throughout. It also has a way of allowing the space to alternately breathe and close in around its characters quite elegantly.
Of course, the story turns temporarily tragic at Hero and Claudio's wedding thanks to the villainy of Don Pedro's bastard brother Don John (Brian Clark) and Act I ends with Claudio denouncing Hero as a whore. His swift rejection of his bride based on Don John's accusations makes for a powerful turn of events and Anthony handles the transition with skill.
The brisk pace achieved in Act I falters a bit as Act II returns with a keystone cop-inspired sequence that lacked precision and resulted in actors pushing their performances to the point of mugging. Enthusiasm aside, clowning still needs a basis of reality to anchor its broad strokes and an effortless execution to be effective. Craig Brown's memorable turn as Dogberry, the malapropism-spouting constable is a delight.
The company does a fine job of embracing the insouciant revelry of the era. Diction is crisp making the story easy to understand and a stylish sophistication runs through the technical aspects of the production, especially Kathryn Wilson's period costumes and Michael Drace Fountain's versatile set design. But in the end, it is Case and Nehring's verbal sparring that gives SOC's MUCH ADO its undeniable charm. They never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them, and every single time we fall under their spell.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Plays Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through September 1st. Festival Amphitheatre, 12762 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA. Main stage performances begin at 8:15 pm. Call 714-590-1575 or visit www.shakespeareoc.org. Picnic areas are available.
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Pictured above: Evelyn Carol Case as Beatrice and Michael Nehring as Benedick. Photo credit: D. Shaffer