Theater Review: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (A Noise Within in Pasadena)

Post image for Theater Review: MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (A Noise Within in Pasadena)

by Tony Frankel on February 15, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


Everyone will make much ado about Guillermo Cienfuego‘s delightful take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing which opened last weekend at A Noise Within. This comedy has it all: sparring partners, deceit, mistaken identities, many overheard conversations, love, and my favorite comedic character in all of Shakespeare: Dogberry, a pompous, scattered constable who watches over the bumbling night guards in the city of Messina on the island of Sicily.

Joshua Bitton

There’s enough enchantment and merriment to fill 2 hours and 40 minutes, so let’s keep plot to a minimum here: Soldiers Benedick, Claudio and nobleman Don Pedro arrive after a military conquest to the home of Leonato — the governor of Messina — his daughter Hero, and his orphaned niece Beatrice, who immediately spars with Benedick. Claudio falls in love with Hero on sight. They plan a wedding. Don Pedro and Hero plot to bring Benedick and Beatrice together. Evil Don John tricks his half-brother Don Pedro and Claudio into believing that they have seen Hero being unfaithful. Claudio accuses Hero of infidelity and refuses to marry her. Hero’s innocence is proven and Claudio repents. The trick to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love succeeds and he proposes to her. (Cliff Notes couldn’t have done it better!)

Erika Soto and Joshua Bitton

Beatrice and Benedick, both blessed with good humor, bicker in a way that suggests they have known each other for some time. They are the direct ancestors of the rom-com couple — the staple of Hollywood comedies since the heyday of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, where the audience is kept intrigued by the unresolved sexual tension between the sparring, apparently unsuited couple. The choice, then, to set the play in Messina, but just after the liberation of Sicily during WWII, makes perfect sense — Fred and Ginger released their ninth film in 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland. You think a 2023 audience is ready to party? Try a newly freed population up against a war machine that makes COVID look tame. Plus, as if mirroring the volcanic output of 1940s’ American Popular Music, there’s plenty of music in Much Ado — “Sigh no more, ladies” is a killer.

Frederick Stuart, Tony Pasqualini, Erika Soto,
Alexandra Hellquist, Stanley Andrew Jackson, III

Speaking of killers, sound designer Chris Moscatiello and choreography Joyce Guy were tasked with raucous, celebratory big-band dances and even a tarantella, bringing even more joy to Messina (gadzooks, the final shindig number made my puss hurt from smiling so loud). Angela Balogh Calin‘s representational sets suggest time and place wonderfully down to the grey and white linoleum squares befitting both a porte-cochère and the interior of a church. But who designed that Cooper Mini-sized Willys MB Jeep which comes onto the mansion’s piazza? Later, the undercarriage of the Jeep (invented for battle in WWII for those who don’t know) is cleverly used as an eavesdropping locale for Benedick. Christine Cover Ferro‘s costume designs are sumptuous, yet some seemed ill-fitting; the military outfits look just used enough.

Nick Petroccione, Alexandra Hellquist and Erika Soto

Cienfuegos puts on his best Preston Sturges face leading his cast, putting delicacy right next to bombastic. It’s a collision of tones and film tropes: As Benedick, Joshua Bitton is funny, attractive, and tough like a lovable New York gangster; shapely Erika Soto makes Beatrice a neorealistic femme fatale; handsome Frederick Stuart‘s Don Pedro is a matinee idol gone to war; Tony Pasqualini plays the rich Leonato like the benevolent but bumptious banker; and as Hero’s waiting servant Margaret, Jeanne Syquia tries her hand at the wise-cracking dame. Some roles are done rather straightforward: Stanley Andrew Jackson is a winning love-sick-turned-righteous Claudio. As Hero, Alexandra Hellquist plays the blushing innocent maiden just like a blushing innocent maiden, and Raphael Goldstein eschews a melodramatic villainy for a Don John with a lost, brooding soul. I’m giving a special shout-out to the calm yet tough Randy Thompson, who handles the language beautifully as the diplomatic friar who aids Hero after Claudio calls her out for being a chippie.

Randy Thompson, Rafael Goldstein

Wesley Mann is a Dogberry extraordinaire, wiping out from my memory Denzel Washington’s disastrous take in the Branagh film version. Mann is truly hysterical, and reminded me of the French guard blocking a castle entrance in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Goldstein does double-duty, becoming Dogberry’s fellow constable, Verges, who has no doubt been sleeping on the job for decades. Verges only has 18 lines, so I loved the fact that Goldstein, toothless with a white beard, merely shouted garbled gobbledygook. HI-larious. Tony Valdes‘s hair and makeup design rocks. The three night watchmen were stuck somewhere between amateurly unintelligible and the Three Stooges — meaning not so funny.

Indeed, some awkward moments exist in lesser parts — a drag maid-in-waiting seemed out-of-place even in this make-believe world. Also, actors were placed near the exit aisles in this thrust space for way too long, blocking important action on the other side of the stage.

The Ensemble

With no sign of fascism or Mussolini’s reign, it’s clear that we are in a fantasyland that only movies are capable of. A game ensemble — wacky, smart, delightful, and altogether fun — offers some truly lovely and original interpretations of the dialogue while ably plunging into the play’s darkness. Cienfuegos has indeed proved why Much Ado has always been on my list of Shakespeare’s best. Don’t miss this.

Randy Thompson, Michael Uribes

photos by Craig Schwartz

Much Ado About Nothing
A Noise Within, 3352 Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena
ends on March 12, 2023
for tickets, call 626.356.3121 or visit A Noise Within
free parking behind theater at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro parking structure

Leave a Comment