On Theater: Shakespeare goes to Chicago with 'Much Ado'

Mounting a Shakespearean play can challenge even professional companies, and colleges revive them chiefly as educational projects. Rarely does a community theater tackle the classical — and ancient — verbiage from the 16th-century works of the Bard of Avon.

The Westminster Community Theater, which mounted an exemplary production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" back in 1981, is staging its second Shakespeare with the slightly altered title of "Much Ado About Nothin'." It's set in 1930s Chicago with a cast that would fit right in with an episode of "The Untouchables."

Creativity is present in abundance in director S.H. Wiggs Jr.'s reimagining of the classic comedy. The characters dress in mobster fashion and carry sidearms as they relate the romantic travails of two couples controlled by the people around them.

While the Westminster production rates high marks for concept, it lags somewhat in pace and presentation. Shakespeare is a mouthful for most actors, and the players of "Much Ado" often find their best efforts thwarted in this regard.

There are some fine performances — chiefly those of Beatrice (Calista Moseley) and Benedick (Rick Reischman), who transition smoothly from exchanging sarcastic remarks to becoming reluctant lovers. They scratch verbal sparks on one another beautifully.

Less accomplished are their pals Claudio (Nick Alspaugh) and Hero (Tiffani Hockings), whose budding romance is thwarted by villainous forces. Alspaugh finds his dialogue elusive, often incomprehensible in its delivery, while Hockings overdoes her maidenly softness to the point of nearly fading out of the picture.

The strongest of the cast is Bill Paxon as the prince Don Pedro, both good-hearted and mighty. His counterpart and brother, Don John (Steve Saatjian), is the prototype of a Mafia enforcer with nefarious goals.

Tim Heaton blusters his way through the role of the bride's father, Leonato, while Jimmy Sapelo egregiously overplays the perpetually inebriated Borachio. Noelle LeBlanc heats up the stage as the comely courtesan Constance, Julie Ray is fine as Hockings' servant Margaret, and Jean Ly adds some sultry sass to the role of their buddy Ursula.

In WCT's "Midsummer" of three decades ago, a young Laurie Sontag stole large chunks of the show as Puck. Now, billed as Laurie Robbins, she is equally memorable as another male character, the constable Dogberry, who finds a wonderfully goofy degree of logic in Shakespeare's rambling speech patterns for the character, elevating the production as a whole.

Director Wiggs — who also designed the set, lighting and sound effects (including the "Dragnet" theme inserted into an arrest sequence) — has come up with some commendable originality in presentation. These qualities tend to offset some cast members' tendency to wander aimlessly about the stage and play everything out front (where, indeed, most of the audience is situated).

There is, on balance, enough effort and originality in "Much Ado About Nothin' " to counteract its less-effective aspects, not to mention a rare Shakespearean turn at a venue such as the Westminster Community Theater.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "Much Ado About Nothin' "

Where: Westminster Community Theater, 7272 Maple Ave., Westminster

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 22

Cost: $15 to $17

Information: (714) 893-8626 or http://www.wctstage.org

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