What a sumptuous feast the Public Theatre has in store for those who attend a performance of their production of Much Ado About Nothing. Every facet of this production is a rich treat, from the cast to the set to the direction - even the choreography and singing. This is one of Shakespeare's most fun plays, and here it is easy to get caught up in the lively antics on stage and enjoy oneself as much as the actors seem to be enjoying themselves.
The comedy tells the tale of cousins Hero (Stina Nielsen) and Beatrice (Deirdre Madigan) and the objects of their desire: Claudio (Jarrod Fry) and Benedick (Douglas Harmsen). Hero and Claudio are paired together easily through mutual attraction, but it takes every effort of friends and family to bring Beatrice and Benedick together, as they begin as vituperative verbal sparring partners (a sign of true affection). Don John (Daniel Krell), the jealous enemy of Claudio, attempts to thwart Claudio's marriage to Hero and thus sets into motion a series of misunderstandings that threaten the relationships, if not the lives, of more than one of the four lovers.
The depth of quality in the cast of 22 is truly impressive. Some of the best of Pittsburgh's acting corps appear here along with others with regional, Off Broadway and Broadway experience. Down to the most minor characters, every part is taken on by truly talented actors. Every single performer is a joy to watch.
Nielsen's Hero is lovely and sweet and Madigan's Beatrice is fiery and quick. Both actresses are good matches for their beaus. Harmsen may take Benedick's exuberance and passion a teensy bit over the edge, but it's difficult to begrudge his energy as he literally bounces about the stage. Claudio is a more serious and pensive man, and Fry embodies the character perfectly.
Daniel Krell doesn't always play the bad guy, but here he really delivers the seething resentment and attendant cowardice of Don John. Other supporting players of note are Randall Newsome as Don John's accomplice Borachio, Michael McKenzie as Don Pedro, Elena Passarello as Margaret, and Michael Greenwood who plays Balthasar and treats us to his beautiful singing voice. As mentioned, every cast member is terrific, but the most delightful standout is John Ahlin as Dogberry the constable who, despite hilarious malapropisms and misunderstandings, manages to help unravel Don John's evildoings. Ahlin is larger than life and a most natural comedian.
The set, designed by James Noone (A Class Act, Judgement at Nuremberg, Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway), is incredible. A stone wall runs all the way across the back and as high up as possible. The wall includes several doors and windows, which are used throughout the show for entrances and appearances by the performers. There are also three large pillars, one of which includes a hidden ladder which allows Benedick to reach a lofty perch perfect for eavesdropping. A raised, beautifully tiled floor with several benches is where most of the action takes place, with more stone tile and brick effects surrounding. A benefit of the Public's staging design, with seating on three sides of the stage, is that most of the audience members walk adjacent to the stage on the way to their seats. For Much Ado, this will afford them a view of the stunning creation Noone and his staff have provided, in particular a close-up look at the mosaic star design set into the floor in one corner of the stage. For other productions, this prodigious set might overwhelm the play itself, but with such a strong and well directed cast, the two aspects complement each other and make a magnificent tableau, perfect for the size of this theater.
Add to this the gorgeous costumes by David R. Zyla - all beautifully designed, well-fitting and in wonderful condition - the delightful and appropriate incidental and transition music (by Michael Moricz), and the well-choreographed and executed dances, and you have one perfect production. Even the wigs are good!
Though the annual Shakespeare offerings at the Public are not always the highlight of the season, this production will be hard to beat. What a wonderful start to a new season.
Much Ado About Nothing at Pittsburgh Public Theater's O'Reilly Theater through Sunday, October 27. For performance and ticket information, call 412-316-1600 or visit www.ppt.org.
William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing
Cast: Douglas Harmsen, Deirdre Madigan, Stina Nielsen, Jarrod Fry, John Ahlin, Elena Alexandratos, Rajesh Bose, David Crawford, Michael Greenwood, Lara Hillier, Edward James Hyland, Daniel Krell, Michael McKenzie, Doug Mertz, Randall Newsome, Elena Passarello, Andy Place, Nick Ruggeri, John Seidman, Joe Warik, Terri Wickline, and John Yost.