THEATER : VERY MUCH ADO : Sophisticated and Energetic, the Grove Shakespeare Festival's New Production Is Its Best in Quite a While

TIMES ORANGE COUNTY THEARTER CRITIC

Shakespeare by starlight means the summer theater season is upon us. With "Much Ado About Nothing" launching the Grove Shakespeare Festival's outdoor series at the Festival Amphitheatre, playgoers have much to celebrate: an updated staging that is not only lovely to look at but witty and imaginative in concept and beautifully executed by a first-class cast.

Director Jules Aaron has set the Bard's 1599 romantic comedy in Fascist Italy of the late 1930s, when the country's swaggering conquest of Ethiopia has swelled the national pride and the soldiers have returned home to civilian life in the afterglow of their easy triumph.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Aaron's modernized version echoes the context of the original by underscoring the idea of a manipulative society led by master puppeteers with a hierarchy of sycophants beneath them. The masters can't mind their own business, and the flunkies are only too willing to do their masters' bidding.

The story centers on two couples: Beatrice and Benedick, possibly the most stubborn, cynical lovers in the Shakespeare canon (Katherine and Petruchio of "The Taming of the Shrew" notwithstanding), and Hero and Claudio, a pair of innocents whose intended marriage is beset by evil-minded gossip.

Among the production's many pleasures are standout performances by David Drummond, who gives a wild-eyed, comic account of Benedick; Elizabeth Norment, who persuades us of Beatrice's sharp worldliness; Carl Reggiardo, who nearly steals the show with his fey malevolence as the homosexual sadist Don John, and Thomas F. Bradac, whose blustering portrayal of the righteous Constable Dogberry is a total delight.

But it is the sophisticated theatricality of this "Much Ado," and the sense of an energetic ensemble full of promising talent--let alone the exquisite design (an Italian piazza with a pool of water and breezy, life-size statues, period costumes and warm, flesh-toned lighting)--that make the production easily the most notable Grove offering in recent memory.

What: The Grove Shakespeare Festival's "Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare.

When: Thursdays to Sundays at 8:30 p.m., through July 14.

Where: The Festival Amphitheatre, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove.

Whereabouts: Garden Grove (22) Freeway to Euclid exit; north to Garden Grove Boulevard; left on Garden Grove to Main St.; right on Main to the amphitheater.

Wherewithal: $16 to $19.

Where to call: (714) 636-7213.

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