It’s distracting at first—not least due to the occasional disjointed anachronisms, such as Friar Francis garbed in a medieval brown robe. But once the vivacious air of swank and preppie privilege dissipates (unexpectedly phasing out into a more conventional Shakespearean staging of the comedy’s climax and denouement), you may find yourself wondering where the party went. You may miss the drinks, dancing and debauchery. You may even yawn.
Fortunately, what never ceases to entertain, all the play through, are the star turns of Kate Costello as Beatrice and Vortex regular Peter Diseth as Benedick. Every performance of Much Ado hinges on the “merry war” between these reluctant lovers. Here, Costello and Diseth wage theirs with the flirty tension and spunky repartee of all those classic couples in the best black-and-white movies.
Costello, who enters clad in a big-buttoned, polka-dotted pantsuit, seems to channel Katharine Hepburn—or, rather, Cate Blanchett’s Hepburn caricature in The Aviator. She easily commands the stage. Imperious yet jaunty, iron-jawed yet vulnerable, Costello offers a wide-ranging exploration of Beatrice built mostly on torch-song sass.
Complementing her with a dapper dash of Spencer Tracy, Diseth steers his Benedick more toward the vaudeville zaniness of Dick Van Dyke. He zips around, works the audience, uses his face like putty, mutters, sputters, guffaws, harrumphs, throws tantrums and generally has a grand old time of it all.
Situating his characters in conversation while putting golf balls on AstroTurf, rallying birdies over a badminton net and anteing up at a poker table are inspired choices.
So the story goes, Benedick and his fellow officer Claudio have returned to Messina, Italy, from a battle in the service of Spanish prince Don Pedro. The uniformed men are welcomed in the home of Messina VIP Leonato, whose daughter, Hero, and niece, Beatrice—through the usual Shakespearean zigzag of misinformation, misaccusations and mistaken identity—eventually find love with their respective soldier suitors.
For Beatrice and Benedick, it’s a hard-fought, antagonistic courtship made possible by hearsay. Claudio and Hero’s entwinement bears that hopelessly innocent, love-at-first-sight stamping of another famous pair of Shakespearean star-crossed paramours—perhaps you’ve heard of them.
Much Ado’s villainy takes the shape of conspiratorial Don John and his henchman Borachio, while its comic relief comes from the clownish constabulary of police chief Dogberry, his assistant Verges and three night watchmen.
The only attention-grabbing performance to rival Costello’s Beatrice and Diseth’s Benedick is John Hardman’s Dogberry. A 30-year veteran of the Albuquerque theater scene, Hardman wields a General Patton riding crop, plies a clueless Inspector Clouseau demeanor and leads his bumbling team of Keystone Kops to great effect, drawing the biggest laughs of the entire ensemble.
Honorable mentions in the acting department go to Dave McDowell (the debonair and fun-loving Don Pedro), Michael Ellis (the evil-lobbyist-like Borachio, but arguably a better choice for Don John) and John DuBois (in the role of the patriarch Leonato).
Not so for Claudio and Hero. Marquils Hunter proves wooden in movement, and stilted and monotonic in speech, while Megan Pryble proffers a few bright moments but remains otherwise unmemorable.
Behind the scenes, David Richard Jones’ direction is distinguished by creative risk-taking and spacial precision. Situating his characters in conversation while putting golf balls on AstroTurf, rallying birdies over a badminton net and anteing up at a poker table are inspired choices. Also visually compelling is a dance sequence (well-nuanced by lighting designer Andrew McHarney) in which spotlit speaking couples move and shadowed non-speaking ones freeze.
The biggest directorial downside, however, is the sudden decrease in choreographed action and increase in text-dense histrionics that mark the play’s final non-roaring 20 minutes.