Los Angeles Theater Review: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Zombie Joe’s Underground)

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by Barnaby Hughes on October 29, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


Shakespeare’s plays tend to be longer than those of contemporary playwrights, typically running 120-150 minutes. This leads many theatre directors to wonder about the feasibility of performing Shakespeare, since contemporary theatre audiences seem to have increasingly short attention spans – perhaps 70-90 minutes. A typical solution is that of shortening the play in question by cutting out unnecessary scenes or characters, which is what director Denise Devin has done for the present production of Much Ado About Nothing at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre. To her credit, the cuts, which bring the show to a brief 70 minutes without intermission, are barely noticeable. They include (or should I say exclude?) the parts of Antonio, brother to Leonato; Conrade, friend to Borachio; and Balthasar, servant to Don Pedro. And where Shakespeare tends to write long, drawn-out endings that tie up all the loose ends, Devin brings the principal plot to a climax and quick end, allowing the various sub-plots to fade into obscurity.

Barnaby Hughes’ Stage and Cinema review of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Zombie Joe’s in North Hollywood/Los Angeles

Another solution to the problem of length would be that of cutting long speeches, songs and dialogues that often serve more to promote the poetic skill of the playwright than to advance the plot of the drama. Denise Devin has used this strategy, too. What she does not do is translate Shakespeare’s language into that of contemporary English usage. There really is no need, since Much Ado About Nothing is written in a more accessible style than that of many of Shakespeare’s other plays.

Zombie Joe’s presents Much Ado About Nothing as a “battle of the sexes,” perhaps as a marketing ploy to lure in young viewers. Yet, the play does not consist of women on one side and men on the other. It’s about two pairs of lovers: Claudio and Hero (played by Philip Rodriguez and Stefanie Ogden), completely enraptured with one another, and Benedick and Beatrice (played by Amir Khalighi and Jennifer Kenyon), reluctantly joined by deception. As written by Shakespeare, Beatrice comes across as a rather headstrong, sassy young woman, somewhat like a Jane Austen heroine. She is single because she wants to be. Jennifer Kenyon’s Beatrice, on the contrary, seems to be single because no one would have her. The only way Benedick falls in love with her is by the trickery of his companions who misrepresent her character and disposition towards him. Benedick is single, however, not because of a disreputable character, but because of his scorn for women and marriage. If there is any “battle of the sexes” in Much Ado About Nothing, then, it is in trying to convince Benedick and Beatrice of each other’s desirability. There is no question of proving the superiority of one sex over another. Rather, it is about the triumph of love over indifference, apathy and/or scorn.

Barnaby Hughes’ Stage and Cinema review of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Zombie Joe’s in North Hollywood/Los Angeles

As an introduction to the play, the show begins with the cast miming the basic story in a rushed, dance-like to-ing and fro-ing across the stage. It’s not obvious at first what is going on, but it begins to make sense as the play wears on. Stage props are minimal; a few branches on the wall near a curtain allows for a Benedick to hide, as though in a bush, as he eavesdrops on the conversation of others. One problem with the staging is that the seats are set up in an L-shape to allow for longer stage entrances and greater movement, but this can create discomfort for many viewers, whose heads have to be turned to the right, where most of the action takes place.

One of the most interesting and successful casting choices in the Zombie Joe’s production involves casting Leonato as a woman, or Leonata (played by Sarah Fairfax). Not only does this increase the number of female characters in the play, but lends some support to the notion that Much Ado About Nothing concerns a “battle of the sexes.” Additionally, two actresses play both male and female characters, such as Denise Rocard in riotously funny portrayals of Ursula and the Watch. Lauren Parkinson as both Margaret and the Sexton, lends further support to the “battle of the sexes” notion, since the Sexton finds Borachio (Marc Lindquist) guilty, thereby vindicating the innocence and purity of Hero. Yet, it is Don Pedro (Gino Costabile) who sets in motion the plot that successfully unites the unlikely lovers, Benedick and Beatrice.

Barnaby Hughes’ Stage and Cinema review of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Zombie Joe’s in North Hollywood/Los Angeles

Amir Khalighi sports himself well as the cunning, though tricked Benedick. He provides plenty of humor, if somewhat caricatured. Much funnier, however, are the aforementioned Denise Rocard and Nicholas Thurkettle as Dogberry. Each actor plays his/her parts in a far more exaggerated and caricatured manner. The difference is that such parts are written as caricatures and so do not call for emotional depth. Such does not seem to be the case with the part of Don John. J. Van Auken, who plays him, makes for a poor villain; there is nothing sinister or threatening about him, just an overly gruff manner of speaking. Finally, Philip Rodriguez gives an incredibly earnest and enthusiastic performance as the young lover Claudio.

Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group presents Much Ado About Nothing in a brief, fast-paced performance that is rather faithful to the original, yet in a somewhat more accessible manner. While it is a pity that the play was not presented in its entirety, it is fortunate that some effort was made to preserve its original setting by means of wardrobe style. An ambitious production, Zombie Joe’s proves that Shakespeare’s beloved comedy can be as successful in a black-box theatre as in a large, well-funded venue.

Barnaby Hughes’ Stage and Cinema review of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at Zombie Joe’s in North Hollywood/Los Angeles

photos by Denise Devin & Zombie Joe

Much Ado About Nothing
Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group in North Hollywood
scheduled to end on December 2, 2012
for tickets, call 818-202-4120 or visit http://www.zombiejoes.com

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