STAGE REVIEW : A Cuban Accent for 'Much Ado'

Times Theater Writer

The Acting Company has done things backward.

It launched its stay at the James A. Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood with an eight-performance run of its unripe "Kabuki Macbeth" and followed it with seven performances of its far tastier--and readier--"Much Ado About Nothing." No sense in speculating why (we're all entitled to the occasional miscalculation), but the comedy that opened Wednesday finds this company much closer to the standard one expects of it.

Still, there is a degree of unripeness even in this "Much Ado." Director Gerald Gutierrez has set the play in Cuba in the 1930s, otherwise sticking faithfully to Shakespeare's text. But he could and should have gone further with the Cuban flavor, which feels more superimposed than organic.

Douglas Stein's stylish but Spartan set hints at Cuban color without really declaring itself. The sound of waves lapping at the unseen beach adds a dimension of place, but why is it only intermittent?

Anne Hould-Ward's costumes for the men are all military uniforms and crisp ice-cream suits, but the women are decked out in surprisingly dowdy '30s dresses (except for a nice comical touch in the moment of Hero's "resurrection").

These inconsistencies carry over into the some of the acting. Jonathan Nichols is a strange Claudio, far too willingly swayed by the plotting Don John (a restlessly credible Peter Lewis) and his cohorts (Rene Laigo and Oliver Barreiro as Cuban sports). Worse, after realizing he has falsely accused Hero of wrongdoing and may have caused her death, this Claudio faces the prospect of an enforced new bride with little remorse and incomprehensibly good humor.

On the other hand, Spencer Beckwith, who played the enigmatic Lady Macbeth in "Kabuki Macbeth," is a winsome Benedick, every slender limb and precise turn that of the smart urban sophisticate. (He'd be sensational in Noel Coward.) Alison Stair Neet is a down-to-earth, sometimes shrill Beatrice who grows on us much as she grows on Benedick.

Ralph Zito's meek Antonio surprises us with sudden and stirring power when he explodes at the malfeasant Claudio and Don Pedro over his niece Hero's "death." And towering Irwin Appel (the massive Macbeth in "Kabuki Macbeth") is a Dogberry so absolutely convinced of his importance in and to the cosmic order that the immensity of his indignation at anyone who doubts it makes for some sterling and--of all things--remarkably understated comedy.

When Gutierrez goes in for Cuban atmospherics the production picks up pace and spirit. He has good ideas, but, maddeningly, doesn't always follow through on them. The first dance at Leonato's estate is a model of choreography (by Theodore Pappas) interrupting and punctuating language. A comic routine with Benedick eavesdropping behind a balustrade and another with Beatrice hiding in a flower bed, are genial moments of tender comedy.

The Hero-Claudio wedding is steeped in rich Catholic-Hispanic trappings. This all works beautifully, but the music, which seems a natural component for establishing time and place, is an elusive mix of Latin standards and uninviting non-Latin strains. Por que?

Finally, a smallish point. Reference is made to currency in dollars, though the peso was the official coin of realm. True, the dollar may have been commonly traded at that time in Cuba as well, but keeping the money in pesos would have helped extend the skimpy Cuban image. Small stuff, perhaps--much smaller than Claudio's misguided reactions or the muddled music--but the kind of detail, nonetheless, on which you build the richness of the context of a play.

Performances at the Doolittle, 1615 N. Vine St. in Hollywood run tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m., concluding Sunday with shows at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $10-$24; (213) 480-3232 or (213) 825-9261.

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