William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the Bard’s lighter tales. A fine new production of it by Long Beach Shakespeare Company gives the classic comedy some unexpected dramatic heft, especially in light of the current, vitriolic U.S. presidential campaign.
Opposing forces, both political and romantic, are at play within the work’s 16-century Sicilian setting. It was a time when Sicily was under Spanish rule, personified by Shakespeare as brothers Don Pedro and Don John. Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, has decided to pay a friendly visit to the local Governor. He has the jealous Don John in tow, having put down an uprising led by his conniving brother in the vicinity. No sooner has “Much Ado About Nothing” begun than the audience is introduced to these stark distinctions between political leaders and siblings.
Among Don Pedro’s soldiers are two other very diverse characters. Benedick has sworn off women and marriage, believing husbands are always at risk of being betrayed by their wives. Claudio, on the other hand, is a hopeless romantic who quickly falls in love with the Governor’s daughter, Hero. Wicked Don John sees an opportunity for revenge and plots to convince Claudio and Benedick that Hero has already been unfaithful. Meanwhile, Benedick and the Governor’s niece, the headstrong Beatrice, find themselves drawn to one another despite their mutual misgivings.
Being one of Shakespeare’s comedies, things work out happily for everyone in the end. Even Don John is forgiven for his victimization of Hero that results in her presumed death. This especially is where Long Beach Shakespeare Company’s current staging makes clear the drama of the piece, showing how damaging false accusations for personal or political gain can be. Cast members Melhia Piot (Hero), Sonja Inge (Leonata, the Governor), Tate Howell (Claudio), Merryn Landry (Beatrice) and Paul Green (Benedick) impressively draw out this dramatic aspect of “Much Ado About Nothing” in addition to the play’s primarily comedic elements. Green is particularly good, putting his improv and stand up comedy backgrounds to hilarious use during a scene where Benedick eavesdrops on others discussing Beatrice’s love for him. Also great at physical comedy is company newcomer Joe Bills, who plays Friar Francis and several other roles.
I have been critical of the disparity between the professional and more amateur actors in some previous LB Shakespeare Company productions. Thankfully, this is less of an issue in “Much Ado.” A couple of cast members flubbed a number of their lines during the opening night performance, which I hope won’t continue to be the case. Director Helen Borgers remains admirably dedicated to staging Shakespeare’s works locally while educating younger cast members as well as the audience (primarily via her extensive program notes) in Elizabethan theatre history and technique.
Hyrum Judkins and Tim Leach have transformed the company’s small, black box stage into a lovely Tuscan garden for this production. Judkins’s sunny lighting design accentuates the setting all the more. As always, costume designer Dana Leach and her crew provide splendid attire, this time with appropriately Spanish touches.
“Much Ado About Nothing” runs weekends through Sept. 17 at the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave. For reservations or more , visit LBShakespeare.org or call (562) 997-1494.