Fine acting, modern touches make Hilberry’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ fun and accessible
BY JOHN MONAGHAN, DETROIT FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
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Shakespeare has rarely been performed with as much accessibility and downright glee as in the production of “Much Ado About Nothing” currently at the Hilberry Theatre.
The comedy, written around 1597, has been updated to modern-day Italy, and as it opens, men are returning from the war with romance on their minds. As Prince Don Pedro (Alec Barbour) helps his friend Claudio (Christopher Ellis) woo the lovely Hero (Carollette Phillips), the Prince’s brother John (Andrew Papa) conspires to scuttle everything with a scandalous lie.
Another friend, bachelor Benedick (Dave Toomey), rekindles his ongoing battle of wits with the staunchly unmarried Beatrice (Vanessa Sawson). They delight in matching each other insult for insult until friends convince them that they’re in love.
This version of “Much Ado” benefits from consistently fine acting. Ellis’ Claudio depicts palpable heartbreak over the seemingly unfaithful Hero. This almost justifies his decision to publicly disgrace her at the altar, a dramatic act that I’ve always viewed as particularly cold.
Meanwhile, Toomey’s Benedick has more heart and nobility than I remember from other versions I’ve seen. The character is often played for laughs.
Director Matthew Earnest adds some clever modern flourishes, including a first-act ditty that’s delivered via a karaoke machine, complete with projected lyrics. A love letter in the second half sounds like a mid-’80s power ballad.
The second-act silliness involving Dogberry (Joshua Blake Rippy) and his security team plays well and finds the performers dressed like park rangers. A Yogi Bear cameo would not be out of line, especially in a party scene in which revelers sport bizarre animal masks and cheesy dance moves.
Set designer Pegi Marshall-Amundsen provides the most ingenious and also the most troublesome aspects of the production. Her towering hedgerow backdrop provides an inspired way for characters to appear at key moments with relative ease, and when a rainstorm erupts, streams of water pour from the heavens in a convincingly atmospheric special effect. Less successful is the pretty but impractical gravel-covered stage. Though it’s helpful for collecting rain water, it elicits a distracting crunch whenever an actor sets foot on it. You can sense the cast members trying to tread lightly so that their dialogue can at least be heard.
That said, “Much Ado About Nothing” should delight Shakespeare snobs and newcomers alike. With this and the equally impressive “Richard III” last season, the Hilberry, a company made up of Wayne State graduate students, proves that it can present Shakespeare with the required reverence while also having a good time.