Theater Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing (*at Dinner),' Middlebury Actors Workshop | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'Much Ado About Nothing (*at Dinner),' Middlebury Actors Workshop

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From left: Craig Maravich, Madeleine Russell and Chris Caswell - COURTESY OF PETER LOURIE
  • Courtesy Of Peter Lourie
  • From left: Craig Maravich, Madeleine Russell and Chris Caswell

The endlessly witty Beatrice and Benedick in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing have taught decades of Hollywood screenwriters how to use bickering as prelude to a swoon. Setting the play in the 1940s suits these precursors of Hepburn and Tracy, and the Middlebury Actors Workshop production does a hilarious job of exploding their romantic nihilism.

The play is about deception, used for good and ill. A love affair is launched when well-meaning friends play a trick on lovers who won't woo without some encouragement. Another romance is torn apart when a villain deceives a young man about his fiancé's fidelity. But the play is a comedy from start to finish, and the villain's work is foiled by yet another deception, augmented by hapless citizens serving on the city's night watch.

Comrades in arms Claudio and Benedick have distinguished themselves in a war and are now set to relax with Prince Don Pedro at the wealthy Leonata's estate. She's mother to young, marriageable Hero and aunt to the motherless Beatrice, marriageable but for her suitor-repelling sarcasm. Claudio falls for Hero in a heartbeat, while Benedick trades barbs with Beatrice.

Shakespeare put them in the Italian city of Messina sometime in the 16th century. Director Melissa Lourie parks the play in Leonata's dining room right after World War II. An elegant dinner party lets the aristocratic characters shimmer in tuxes and gowns, dance to big-band swing, and even don masks for anonymous wooing. Lourie summons the romantic style of Bogart and Bacall and the musical energy of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

The original play has about 20 speaking roles. Lourie's adaptation retains nearly all of them, structuring the action so eight actors can switch into all of the roles. It's a feat of theatrical organization, but it takes no toll on the play. Every scene is preserved, and the actors have just enough time to don the hat, coat or mannerism used to identify a particular character.

Staged in the round, the show makes a virtue of the difficulty in blocking for all points of the compass. Lourie keeps the actors in constant motion but stages the movement to feel like effortless dance. Choreographer Elisa Van Duyne adds several ballroom and dancehall pieces, but even during dialogue the graceful actors twirl and sweep to engage each other.

Though Lourie worked out a conceit for a setting limited to a dining room, the rationale is unimportant the moment the play begins. The program tells us it's to be a play within a play, performed by an acting company that's reunited after the war. That frame never asserts itself because these performers don't address each other as actors, nor do they need scripts or even a director to enact some pretty stupendous effects.

Lourie's adaptation makes painless cuts to the text and yields a perfectly paced two-and-a-half-hour running time.

Chris Caswell, as Beatrice, shows o ff the character's bravura wordplay by slyly checking that the other characters are getting the jokes and admiring their author. Caswell's funny physical gags are all the more impressive executed in a cocktail dress. She doubles as the reprobate Conrade, with a wise guy's cigar stub, hat and delivery.

Craig Maravich is a keen-eyed Benedick, letting his eyes dance over a room in search of fun. When they light on Beatrice, he teases her peevishly, the flip side of flirtation. Doubling as Don John's shady henchman Borachio, Maravich slits his eyes and sucks in his cheeks to pout. Physically, Maravich is a joy to watch as he dances, glides, hops up on furniture and scuttles into hiding.

As Hero, Madeleine Russell lights up the stage, brimming with youth. She's affecting as the victim of cruelty, then humorous as a member of the watch.

Eric Reid-St. John is a bright, bold Claudio, ready to revel in peacetime and holding his wine glass with expansive ease. As Verges of the watch, his old-man walk is priceless.

Steve Small plays a butler who handles all stray exposition and serves Leonata with the inner fervor of a great English domestic. As Dogberry, the constable who spews malapropisms, Small becomes a sheriff in over his head, balancing incompetence with a courtly gait and quickly doffed hat.

Ethan Bowen plays the half brothers Don Pedro and Don John, the former an amiable prince and the latter a literal and figurative bastard. Bowen lets their similarities show, using the same fierce gaze to play them both with eyes glowing like coals, but gives John a sneer and a slouch, and Pedro a regal bearing.

Lindsay Pontius is a warmhearted Leonata. Her big emotions almost toss her about as she plays the perfect dinner hostess with operatic gusto. Maren Langdon Spillane shines in a host of roles, especially as a chatty, enthusiastic ladies' maid to Hero.

Costume designer Jenny Fulton uses a strict black-and-white palette, the better to show off the main characters in dreamy evening wear and to apply simple accents for character changes. The goofy members of the watch sport black raincoats and Groucho Marx glasses, easy to don and doff. The men's tuxedo shirts show well with jackets or on their own with suspenders and cummerbunds. Beatrice wears a show-stopping black cocktail gown and Hero a heart-melting white dress.

Period music sweeps viewers into the postwar setting, from the energy of jitterbug to the smooth pleasure of big-band numbers.

At its best, comedy bubbles over and sweeps reason aside, leaving an audience powerless to resist. In the opening-night performance at Middlebury's Town Hall Theater, prior to shows at Burlington's FlynnSpace, the fine cast executed a deception of its own by concealing the effort beneath an acrobatic, soaring show.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Serving Shakespeare | Theater review: Much Ado About Nothing (*at Dinner), Middlebury Actors Workshop"

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