THEATER REVIEWS : Skakespearean Studies in Paradox : O.C. troupe presents a beautifully designed 'Much Ado About Nothing,' complemented by a sparkling blend of highly charged acting and bold direction.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just when it seemed local fans of the Bard might have to settle for less, Shakespeare Orange County opened its second summer season Friday with a radiant production of "Much Ado About Nothing" that easily fills the void created by the recent demise of GroveShakespeare.

Beautifully conceived and executed, the show at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre ought to be a crowd-pleaser not only for its sparkling blend of farcical comedy and near-tragic drama but for its evocative Italianate design, bold directorial strokes and lead performances that revel in one of the most playful displays of sustained badinage between two of the wittiest, most fractious lovers in the Shakespeare canon.

The handsome Renaissance-era look of the production alone testifies to the high level of artistry, not to mention the technical resourcefulness, of a professional classical company operating well beyond the limitations of its shoestring budget.

Set in Sicily as Shakespeare prescribed, Chris Holmes' scenic design suggests a Roman ruins overgrown with vines and enclosed within vast formal gardens. Massive columns topped by ornate capitals line the perimeter of a spacious piazza appointed with topiary. A raised central landing--its marble balustrade garlanded at each end with bouquets of flowers--dominates the piazza and gives the feeling of a courtyard.

All of this stands rather spectacularly beneath a back-lit sky of either dark blue or silvery white and is bathed in David Palmer's warm, flesh-toned lighting. Moreover, despite the huge size of the set, which capitalizes on the Waltmar's unusually deep stage, the production maintains a pleasant intimacy with the audience because the 256-seat theater itself is small.

Trish Farnsworth's costumes meanwhile underscore the era and locale, as well as the status and origins of the play's many characters. Among the men, for example, the colonizing Spanish royals wear velvet doublets and rakish hats; the young lords from Padua and Florence are slightly less regal in their stylish military doublets of leather and suede. The Sicilian natives, from the governor to the peasants, are dressed more humbly. And the women of gentle birth wear flowing, simple, floor-length gowns.

But it is the highly charged performances of the two leads under Carl Reggiardo's imaginative direction, along with vivid support by several key players, that gives this "Much Ado" its entertaining zest.

From the play's opening moments--when Beatrice (Elizabeth Norment) asks with typical mockery about Benedick (Wayne Alexander) and his recent battlefield exploits ("How many hath he kill'd and eaten in these wars?")--we learn through her uncle Leonato (Daniel Bryan Cartmell) that she and Benedick have long engaged in "a kind of merry war" of their own.

"They never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them," Leonato, the governor of Messina, explains to a messenger who is not quite prepared for Beatrice's cutting remarks. The messenger has, after all, merely brought news that the entourage of victors, Benedick among them, is about to arrive at Leonato's home.

Benedick no sooner brushes the dust of the road from his clothes than he takes note of Beatrice with a scorn equal to hers: "What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?" Thus we first hear their unrelenting verbal sallies, which continue even after both of them are tricked into believing what everybody else seems to know--namely that they are in love with each other.

Norment plays Beatrice with unyielding sarcasm. She screws her mouth into a sardonic grimace and delivers her scathing insults with a withering sideways glance. For a change of pace she sometimes modulates to intelligent irony. If her portrayal of Beatrice is less fiery than it was in a 1990 production at GroveShakespeare, it is also more devastating, shrewder, less of a harangue.

Alexander plays Benedick with a flair for self-deprecating comedy, no small feat considering the character's overweening pride. Adept at pratfalls as well as double-takes, Alexander occasionally raises just an eyebrow to punch up a line for a well-earned laugh. Which is not to say he trivializes the role. Indeed, he cuts a noble figure whenever it's called for and always rises to the challenge of Shakespeare's ripostes.

Ordinarily, "Much Ado" has one other pair of lovers--Hero (Pauline Maranian) and Claudio (Mikael Salazar)--whose prospective marriage incites the unmitigated villain of the play, Don John (Reggiardo), to spread slanders against Hero. This time, however, a third couple has been added by casting Don John's chief henchman, Borachio (Kamella Tate), as a woman.

The mating of Don John and Borachio turns out to be a clever idea, especially within the framework of an otherwise traditional production. The most obvious reason is that, as Don John's secret lover, Borachio gains enhanced motivation to participate in his evil scheme. Thus Borachio becomes more than a flunky.

As played over the top with sadomasochistic heat by a wanton Tate full of arch balletic grace and by a cold-as-ice Reggiardo full of repressed fury, their manipulative relationship also takes some of our attention away from Hero and Claudio--which isn't bad dramaturgy either.

Hero and Claudio are innocents who never really caught Shakespeare's attention in the first place. That is evident from his failure to develop them beyond stock figures. Their chaste relationship serves essentially as a plot device. It's strictly a windup instrument to spring-load the play's darker elements.

"Much Ado" would not be complete without its clownish band of lovable vulgarians, of course. Led by the bombastic constable Dogberry (Tom Bradac), these salts of the earth provide us with the Shakespearean equivalent of, say, MTV's Beavis and Butt-head. In fact, Dogberry is probably their role model.

* "Much Ado About Nothing," Waltmar Theatre, 310 E. Palm St., Orange. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 3 p.m. Ends Aug. 7. $21-$23. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Michael Nehring: Don Pedro

Daniel Bryan: Cartmell Leonato

Emily Delk: Antonia

Wayne Alexander: Benedick

Elizabeth Norment: Beatrice

Mikael Salazar: Claudio

Pauline Maranian: Hero

Eve Himmelheber: Margaret

Myra Cris Ocenar: Ursula

Carl Reggiardo: Don John

Kamella Tate: Borachio

David Sebastian Franco: Conrade One

Jose Restrepo: Conrade Two

Tom Bradac: Dogberry

Mark Eli Talley: Verges

Randy Anderson: First Watchman

Chris Duval: Second Watchman

Wes Managbanag: Balthasar

John Shouse: Friar Francis

Alex Brewer-Disarufino: Messenger

A Shakespeare Orange County production. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Carl Reggiardo. Producing artistic director: Thomas F. Bradac. Associate producer: Kamella Tate. Managing director: John Swartzel. Scenic design by Chris Holmes. Costume design by Trish Farnsworth. Lighting design by David Palmer. Sound design by Craig Brown. Makeup and wig design by Karen Mann. Choreography by Linda Kostalick. Stage Manager: Anne Kearson.

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