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Theater review: 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the Old Globe in San Diego

July 1, 2011 |  1:58 pm


SAN DIEGO -- History doesn’t record whether Shakespeare was much of a fashionista, but he sure had a keen eye for resonant bits of fabric. There’s Desdemona’s telltale, plot-driving handkerchief in “Othello,” for example, and Malvolio’s ludicrous yellow garters in “Twelfth Night.”

In the Old Globe’s beautifully turned-out and gracefully performed production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” part of its annual summer Shakespeare Festival, the sartorially significant garment appears in Act 1, while Benedick (a very fine Jonno Roberts) is caustically assessing the dubious merits of the female sex with his fellow soldiers Don Pedro (Donald Carrier) and Claudio (Kevin Alan Daniels).

These military men, lately returned from war, look resplendent in their braided red tunics and gray overcoats. But when Benedick heaves off his boots, he reveals a pair of mismatched, toe-less socks that undercut his macho swagger and dash.

More important, the threadbare footwear signals that these troops are accustomed to living in each other’s rough male company, in a world far apart from the genteel provincial Italian noblewomen into whose company fate has thrust them.

That group, of course, includes Benedick’s alpha-female romantic sparring partner Beatrice (Georgia Hatzis, making her erotically charged scorn intimidatingly palpable), and Hero, Claudio’s intended bride, smartly portrayed by Winslow Corbett as one of those Shakespearean maids who, though they be but little, they be fierce. Let the combat begin.

Updating the play’s setting to mid-19th century Europe, this “Much Ado” is one of the handsomest I’ve seen. Much credit belongs to director Ron Daniels, a theatrical rare bird who founded a theater in São Paulo, Brazil, and formerly directed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s experimental theater, the Other Place. Local audiences may recall his moving world premiere production of “Il Postino” for L.A. Opera last fall.

But the production’s appeal goes beyond the attractive cast, or Deirdre Clancy’s costume designs, whose period authenticity might pass muster with a museum curator.

Daniels has devised a number of exquisite set pieces that express the production’s subtle view of the symmetrical arts of love and war, including a play-opening ladies’ sewing circle, a kabuki-like nighttime swordsmanship display, and a singing of Shakespeare’s “Sigh No More,” cleverly construed by sound designer Dan Moses Schreier as a melancholy regimental ballad.

More than picturesque tableaux, these stage compositions, expertly lighted by Alan Burrett, emphasize that both courtship and warfare are stylized undertakings with their own forms of graciousness and savagery. Roberts and Hatzis, who are real-life spouses, bring great emotional credibility to the play’s heartbreak tangos of hope, wounded pride and desire.

There’s lots to savor in the casting: Adrian Sparks’ Leonato, alternately courtly and volcanic; John Cariani’s Dogberry, showing us why Shakespeare’s malapropism-addled constable is kin to TV’s Barney Fife.

And Jay Whittaker, who’s also playing Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” in the Old Globe’s festival, is a terrifically malevolent and conniving Don John, a nasty punk with delusions of possessing a more magisterial type of villainy. I’d pay to see his Richard III or Iago, too, someday.

-- Reed Johnson

"Much Ado About Nothing"   The Old Globe, San Diego, through Sept. 24  Tickets: $29-$90.  Contact: (619) 23-GLOBE or  Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Photo: Jonno Roberts as Benedick and Georgia Hatzis as Beatrice in the Old Globe's production of "Much Ado About Nothing." Credit: Henry DiRocco.