Raleigh Little Theatre’s new artistic director, Patrick Torres, has chosen Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” for his first directing duties there.
He proves to have a fine feel for comedy, an ability to inspire actors of varying experience to confident performances, and an understanding of what keeps a production lively and crisp.
Torres sets the play in 1945 in the U.S. at the end of World War II, mirroring the original’s plot point about soldiers returning from war to the women they left behind. This comfortably familiar period, aided by its recognizable fashions and popular music, shrewdly makes the play seem contemporary. Torres furthers the effect by having his cast speak in casual American accents without any feeling of oratory or speechmaking.
Torres generates some hilarious performances, especially from Lucius Robinson as Benedick, sworn enemy of, but eventual husband for, Beatrice. Robinson’s rubber-faced expressions and goofball personality, along with his clarity of diction and astutely varied line readings, create a highly entertaining portrayal. His physical comedy when Benedick is tricked into falling for Beatrice is worth the ticket price alone.
Katherine Barron’s Beatrice has attractive independence, her Katharine Hepburn-like personality enhanced by Vicki Olson’s Hepburn-esque costuming. Barron spars amusingly with Robinson and adroitly conveys Beatrice’s begrudging admission of love for Benedick.
The other 18 cast members perform impressively as an ensemble, each with individual characterizations. Notable performances come from Stephen Eckert’s intensely lovesick Claudio and Sarah Beth Short’s sweetly innocent Hero, the object of his affection, along with Jim O’Brien’s authoritatively paternal Leonato and Scott Nagel’s ebullient Don Pedro. Doug Kapp and Fred Corlett get a lot of laughs with their Mayberry-style routines as local lawmen Dogberry and Verges.
Elizabeth Newton’s lovely, multitiered set represents Leonato’s terraced gardens and, through a cleverly concealed turntable, various rooms in his mansion. Although the set allows for an uninterrupted flow of scenes, it too often puts actors quite far back from the audience, and the more soft-spoken performers are difficult to hear clearly, especially the women. Even in scenes closer up, the staging often has actors turning away from the audience for important lines, further impeding clarity.
But the overall production is admirable for its verve, naturalness and uniformity, qualities that bode well for Torres’ impact on this venerable community theater.