There's a whole lot of "Nothing" going on in greater Pasadena, where Shakespeare fans have their choice of two wildly divergent stagings of the Bard's ever-popular romp "Much Ado About Nothing," one from Pasadena's Knightsbridge Theatre, the other from the Pasadena Shakespeare Company (now based in South Pasadena's Fremont Centre Theatre).
Both productions incorporate revisionist spin to some degree. However, the Knightsbridge Theatre takes the lion's share of risks with its re-christened "Much Ado 'Bout Nothin'." Director Jaz Davison's irreverent resetting unfolds in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, mapping each of Shakespeare's characters onto an early-1960s movie icon -- the hedonist Benedick is reincarnated as a booze-swilling Dean Martin (Raymond Donahey), dashing young Claudio as a debonair Peter Lawford (Bret Shefter), his love interest Hero as Joan Collins in her ingenue days (Megan kay) and that benevolent head of state Don Pedro as the cocky "Chairman of the Board" himself, Frank Sinatra (Jesse Harper).
In comparison, the Pasadena Shakespeare Company's version seems positively traditional. Splitting the difference between our time and Shakespeare's, Matthew A. Zettell sets this one in scansion-friendly 1846 California -- for which designers Grant Van Zevern (set) and Bill E. Kickbush (lighting) have crafted an elaborate, warm-hued Mission-esque environs reminiscent of -- well, early South Pasadena. The Knightsbridge production values take "Nothing" closer to heart, though costume designer Laura White obviously had a thrift store field day hunting down suitably gaudy outfits for her Vegas populace.
Where the Knightsbridge is more of an ensemble presentation, Pasadena Shakespeare Company pares both text and dramatic focus down to spotlight those enemies-turned-lovers Beatrice (Gillian Bagwell) and Benedick (Tim Halligan), but in these overly genial portrayals their initial antagonism rarely ignites sparks. Unfortunate, since the arcs of both characters hinge on their razor-sharp intellects' blinding them to their feelings (hence, the ease with which they're both manipulated by their matchmaking friends).
The Knightsbridge duo realizes that dynamic more fully, thanks to Thia Stephan's Beatrice (looking like the Shirley MacLaine of "Sweet Charity" but lacing her barbs with venom appropriate to the text) and Donahey's Benedick, whose Dino displays keen insight even as he hides behind a mask of laissez-faire indifference.
As in Davison's companion show (the western-themed "As Ya Like It, Pardner"), the conceit calls for actors to not only capture Shakespeare's creations but modulate them through movie celebrities, not always successfully -- Zettell's cast is more uniform in quality, and a better bet for novices. But for all its freewheeling wackiness, the Knightsbridge version finds its way to more of the play's deeper emotional truths. Though the Lawford-esque Shefter is far too old for the callow, intemperate Claudio, his cruelty to the slandered Hero prompts Harper's Old Blue Eyes to admonish, "Hey! I thought you were English -- show some class!" I'm not sure which folio this line was drawn from, but it rang truer about that scene than anything the competition had to offer.
'Much Ado About Nothing'
Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena
When: Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Ends: Feb. 16
Contact: (626) 799-1860
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
'Much Ado 'Bout Nothin' '
Where: Knightsbridge Theatre, 35 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena
When: Saturdays, 5 p.m.; Sundays, 6 p.m.
Ends: Feb. 16
Info: (626) 440-0821
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes