William Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is hilariously convoluted, but so much depends on how today’s audience understands what’s being communicated. Director Guillermo Cienfuegos’s production—continuing at A Noise Within in Pasadena through March 12—is so vibrant one forgets the language is even Shakespearean.
Updating the time period from Messina, Italy in the 16th century to 1943 during World War II allows Cienfuegos to add period music, dance, dress, army uniforms, and even a jeep and bicycle—elements still familiar today. But the story and language remain the same: a delightful tale of opposites attract with a dramatic interrogation of love and honor.
We are introduced to the characters wearing 1940s attire (costumes by Christine Cover Ferro, wigs and makeup by Tony Valdes) in a bustling plaza of sunny Messina (scenic design by Angela Balogh Calin with lighting by Ken Booth), into which an army jeep pulls up.
Getting out of the vehicle, the suave Don “The Prince” Pedro (Frederick Stuart, channeling Pierce Brosnan) tells his soldiers Benedick (Joshua Bitton) and Claudio (Stanley Andrew Jackson) that they can stay in town for a month following the armistice. Woohoo!
Young Claudio promptly falls for the delicate and lovely Hero (Alexandra Hellquist), daughter of Leonato (Tony Pasqualini), the governor of Messina. But it takes The Prince to appeal to Leonato on Claudio’s behalf to give his daughter away in marriage, fueling the resentment of his brooding half-brother John (Rafael Goldstein).
Meanwhile, veteran solider Benedick vows he will never get married (ever) as does Leonato’s wittily opinionated niece Beatrice (Erika Soto). Benedick and Beatrice apparently have a history of not liking each other and much of the fun is hearing them put each other down as representatives of the opposite sex they despise.
Bitton and Soto’s verbal sparring is perfectly well-timed—Bitton’s Jersey accent adds to his roughness while Soto embodies Beatrice’s cleverness and independence. The two are a joy to hear deliver scathing lines through the first half, both to each other and aside to the audience.
But because marriage is in the air, Leonato and Benedick’s army buddies secretly conspire to convince Benedick that Beatrice actually loves him. In a physically hysterical scene, Benedick thinks he is hidden in a tool cart as the other men bang it around while revealing Beatrice’s “true” feelings for him.
And of course, Hero and her maids Margaret (Jeanne Syquia) and Ursula (Nick Petroccione, switching between genders in this production), similarly convince Beatrice that Benedick has feelings for her. A couple of sonnets later and Benedick and Beatrice are each pretty quick to change their minds about the other.
Meanwhile, the still-stewing John devises a plot to overthrow The Prince’s orchestrated love-match by making Claudio doubt Hero’s chastity and loyalty, leading to a wedding blow up and Hero’s devastating public humiliation, disbelieved even by her own father.
Since this is a comedy rather than tragedy, the second half is all about restoring order in however convoluted a way, and the only death involved is pretend. It also involves amusing antics by Messina’s keystone cops (Syquia and Petroccione) led by a humorously bumbling and mustachioed chief, played with relish by Wesley Mann.
Owing to the entire cast and crew’s investment in staging “Much Ado About Nothing”—and Cienfuegos’s refreshingly dynamic direction—you’ll remain riveted right through to the final jitterbug dance. Consistent with A Noise Within’s penchant for exceptional storytelling (as seen in last year’s "A Christmas Carol," "Animal Farm" and "Metamorphoses"), this play could just as well be called “Much Ado About Something Superb”—not to be missed!
“Much Ado About Nothing” continues at A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena, through March 12, with performances Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., and Thursday, March 9, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25 for adults and $18 for students. For tickets and information, call (626) 353-3100 or visit anoisewithin.org. Run time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Masks are optional.