Much Ado About Nothing Theatre Review - A Noise Within Makes Something Out of "Nothing"

Benedick (JD Cullum)finally proclaims his love for Beatrice (Torri Higginson)

(Glendale, CA) March, 2010 – It is a well known fact that successful marriages must contain two essential ingredients: chemistry and character. If a couple is missing one of these components, there is a very good chance you will be part of the 50% that is divorced in the United States or, if there are children involved, you will be stuck in a passionless and, most importantly, loveless marriage. If you have the fire of passion without the substance of character in the relationship, the fires burns out quickly and so does the marriage. However, if you only have the character of the relationship without having just a little bit of that “spark” of chemistry, then you don’t have a spouse; you have a roommate that shares a bed with you.

William Shakespeare understands this all to well. He has successfully shown how passion can be the only driving force in a relationship, leading to disastrous results ( Romeo and Juliet, Othello), as well as showing those “comfortable and safe” relationships that lack that certain spark (possibly almost every comedy he has written---does the term “cuckold” spring anything to mind?). However, The Bard has created a number of plays that illustrate the fine balance of character and chemistry. He proved his point with Taming of the Shrew. With regard to Much Ado About Nothing, A Noise Within has wonderfully shown the proper balance of chemistry and character through fine direction and the exceptional performances of its stars, Torri Higginson and JD Cullum.
 
 

The cast parties and dances, courtesy of the dynamic choreography by Julia Rodriguez-Elliot

In the Sicilian town of Messina, a group of warriors---led by Don Pedro (a noble Patrick O’Connell)---have come home to celebrate their victory with the governor Leonato (the ever reliable and ever patriarchal Apollo Dukakis) and his family, which includes his daughter Hero (a sweet performance by Lindsay Gould) and niece Beatrice ( Torri Higginson). As the festivities begin, many little plots unfold. Claudio (a nicely naïve Brandon Hearnsberger), a soldier in Don Pedro’s command, instantly falls in love with Hero. Benedick ( JD Cullum), another soldier in the regiment, continues the usual tradition of the verbal foreplay and battle of wits with Beatrice, but continues to insist that it’s not due to love; Beatrice likewise feels the same way regarding her verbal opponent. Therefore, Don Pedro plans to serve as benevolent matchmaker by arranging Claudio to be married to Hero within a week’s time (a ritual that is very typical in modern day Hollywood), while also scheming to get the two insistent, overcompensating bachelors---Benedick and Beatrice---to fall in love and get married, as well. But a fly appears in the ointment as Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John ( Stephen Rockwell), plots to ruin all plans that involve love and marriage, thereby creating a series of events that results in the “death” of a major character (A death in a Shakespearean romantic comedy? Impossible!). 

Hero (Lindsay Gould) consults Beatrice (Torri Higginson) about love and marriage

As always, pacing is essential to a comedy’s success and Michael Murray’s direction is spectacular with the show’s transitions, blocking, and especially dance choreography (a fantastic job by ANW Artistic Co-Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliot), which helps tie all the action together without dragging the play down. But Murray also breaks convention in terms of his casting. The first example of this is selecting JD Cullum as Benedick. A director who wants to play it safe in casting Benedict would usually choose an actor that fits the “dashing, leading man Cary Grant/Kenneth Branagh” type. Cullum does not fit in that category: he’s shorter than his graceful counterpart Beatrice, slightly stocky, and would best fit Shakespearean character roles like Caliban from The Tempest, Iago from Othello, and especially Puck from Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Does he have the look of “the romantic leading man”? No, he doesn’t; and that is the beauty of this casting choice. It is Cullum’s comedic timing and especially his boyish charm that wins the audience and Beatrice over. His false bravado covers his neurosis and insecurity, especially when he becomes self-deprecating about his “rhyming abilities” in order to woo his love interest. And his physical comedy is masterful during moments when he is drunk, trying to eavesdrop on gossip, or trying to re-make himself as more of a romantic type of man when he shaves his mustache off.

Torri Higginson’s Beatrice is a perfect foil and love interest for Cullum’s Benedick. Tall and graceful, Higginson has an incredible presence on the stage. But behind that grace are facets of sharp intelligence, an even sharper wit, and a heartwarming vulnerability that she patiently unpeels from her role as though she were revealing the various layers of an onion. And in terms of balancing the passions of chemistry and the romantic, soulful nature of character, both Higginson and Cullum ignite with their mutual fires, both in their verbal sword play, as well as their mutual love for each other (or is that a redundancy?).
 

All's well that ends well for Beatrice (Torri Higginson) and Benedick (JD Cullum)

The second, unconventional casting choice is regarding Stephen Rockwell as Don John. Rockwell was last seen in ANW's Noises Off as an aging, bespectacled character actor who had the incredible ability to hop up a flight of stairs with his pants around his ankles. He is clearly unrecognizable as the villainous Don John. He’s heavier, mustached, and exudes a malevolence that would usually fit the “leading villain” type of actor, such as ANW Richard III’s Steve Weingartner (who is a pure scene stealer as Don John’s devious henchman, Borachio). However, what really establishes Rockwell’s malignant presence is his soft-spoken nature and voice. A less sophisticated actor (like Keanu Reeves in the movie version of the play) would chew up the scenery. But Rockwell expertly interlaces John’s envy and ego with subtle nuances of his dialogue and movements. His villain is one we don’t expect, and those are the type of villains that are the most dangerous. Bravo to Rockwell for transforming himself out of type into a threatening character that the play needs.

And speaking of scene stealers, none does it better than Mark Bramhall and Mitchell Edmonds, the dynamic duo that received enthusiastic audience response in ANW’s previous production of Waiting for Godot.  In Godot, Edmunds was the dominant Pozzo and Bramhall was the silent, passive Lucky. In Nothing, the roles are reversed where Bramhall portrays the militaristic, stalwart Dogberry and Edmonds plays the loyal, yet befuddled Verges. Both men are absolutely hilarious as a pair of aging police officers trying to keep order in Messina (Heaven help that town!). Both are dressed as though they were in a Monty Python sketch: Bramhall looking like a lean, mean, mustached, and aging Napoleon; Edmonds a portly, white bearded English bobby. Through their ludicrous antics, they generate considerable sympathy. They show a different type of chemistry regarding how comrades in arms can stick with each other through the best and worst of times (especially when a thug slings profanity at the indignant Dogberry), making Much Ado About Nothing something to behold.
 
 
 
Much Ado About Nothing opened March 6, 2010 and runs through May 21, 2010


A Noise Within
234 South Brand Boulevard
Glendale, CA 91204

online: www.anoisewithin.org

Photos by: Craig Schwartz

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