Engaging performances, strong production values and some admiring nods to Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film mark Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre's pleasant production of Much Ado About Nothing. William Shakespeare's dark-edged comedy, which Branagh adapted, directed and starred in to deserved acclaim (along with his then-wife Emma Thompson), centers around two pairs of lovers, one young and gooey, the other a tad older and suspecting, who alternately grope and claw their way through love's manifold appearances and deceptions.
Taking his cue from Branagh's sumptuous movie, which was shot entirely in and around a gorgeous Tuscan villa, director Eric Fry updates the period to the mid-nineteenth century and transports the wordy wooing exercise from its original, port-city setting in Sicily to the bucolic, northern Italian climes of Tuscany -- astute choices that allow for a more vigorous, earthy approach while preserving the play's lyrically romantic tone.
In fact, Fry's staging maximizes the Bug Performance and Media Art Center's narrow confines instead of being hemmed in by them. Intimate episodes command attention but don't feel forced, timely transitions provide a decent sense of perspective and group scenes radiate enthusiasm without devolving into shouted chaos. The novice director's underscoring of several scenes with classic orchestral works (such as the "William Tell Overture" and Beethoven's "Pastorale Symphony") does wind up being more of a hindrance than a help: As typically happens in such situations, the familiar musical pieces conjure feelings that are beyond the play's specific focus. However, a couple of catchy tunes bring to mind the music used in Branagh's film. And, aided by designer Jeremy Cole's splendid array of costumes, Fry's version arouses the senses and awakens thought. True, a couple of low-comedy scenes fall flat, but most of the performers carry off their hijinks without obliterating episodes of tender feeling.
In fact, the actors adjust nicely to the shoebox-style theater's bouncy acoustics, tossing off the Bard's mix of poetry and prose with ease and panache. While the two-and-a-half-hour effort feels more like atmospheric chamber music than a robust concerto featuring four soloists, several performers distinguish themselves without detracting from the production's ensemble feel. The famously mercurial relationship between Benedick and Beatrice takes a while to get beyond its low-grade fever stage, but Nils Kiehn and Kristin Teig manage to lend sober sensibility to their respective roles. Rising to the occasion when Beatrice demands that Benedick kill his best friend in order to avenge her honor, Kiehn also proves amusing when attempting to compose a love song in the privacy of a too-public garden. While her portrait could use more high-spirited, unflappable spunk, the winsome Teig's calm facade of invincibility is intriguing, especially when she attempts to firm up Beatrice's footing during scenes with her many girlfriends, relatives and would-be suitors.
As Bea and Ben's googly eyed protegés, Joseph Norton and Heather Larson imbue their portrayals of Claudio and Hero with subtlety and dimension. A high-energy performer who has in the past lapsed into the pyrotechnics of caricature, Norton impresses here with his beautifully controlled take on a supporting role considered one of the most difficult in all of Shakespeare -- principally because Claudio viciously (and temporarily) turns on his bride-to-be before the audience is afforded little more than a glimpse of his better side. Larson is equally convincing in a role that affords her relatively spare amounts of dialogue to cover a broad emotional range. C.J. Hosier is properly diplomatic as the well-wishing if underfulfilled Don Pedro, and Jim Whiteman is serviceable as the double-dealing Leonato. Gino DiDio tugs on a few heartstrings as the crooning Balthasar, Ken Witt charms as a silent, then gently instructive Friar Francis, and Jessica Robblee's wordless micro-explosions transform the bit part of Ursula into a comic treasure.
Deserving of special mention, though, is Step Pearce, who plays the part of Don John with admirable presence and bearing. In addition to deepening our understanding of oily villainy, Pearce's calculated movements and precise speech illuminate Don John's bottomless reservoirs of ignominy. Having successfully portrayed a wide variety of Shakespearean roles earlier this season in the Theatre Group's Shakespeare's R & J and the Bug Theatre Company's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the versatile Pearce once again demonstrates his ability to exploit a part's emotional parameters without distorting them. His gratifying performance, along with those of his talented colleagues, artfully reinforces the idea that in the game of love, nothing is ever what it appears to be.
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