The Alley's setting, costumes and music add unexpected  layers of pleasure to an already perfect script.
The Alley's setting, costumes and music add unexpected layers of pleasure to an already perfect script.
T. Charles Erickson

Much Magic

Director Scott Schwartz has delivered a gorgeous production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Now running at the Alley Theatre, this must-see confection is filled with charm, grace and sumptuous joy.

Most anyone who loves Shakespeare knows the much-loved comedy about two pairs of lovers who find each other despite and because of the interference of others. But in Schwartz's rendition, the story is somehow altogether new. The setting, costumes and music add so many unexpected layers of pleasure to an already perfect script that the formal elegance of Shakespeare's text all but disappears in the frothy fun.

The originality starts at the top of the show, when Claudio and Benedick, the two men destined to fall in love with Hero and Beatrice, enter the stage via an enormous hot air balloon. Add in dramatic music that riffs on films such as Top Gun, and Schwartz has set the stage for an evening full of invention and surprise.


Much Ado About Nothing The Cook

Much Ado About Nothing Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

The Cook Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.

Much Ado About Nothing Through November 5. $19-$58.

The Cook Through October 29. $26-$36.

The technical elements of the show are simply stunning. Designer Walt Spangler has covered the Alley stage with a simple landscape of cartoon-cutout green hills, giant daisies and puffy blue skies. Hot air balloons dapple the horizon. When the crabby Benedick (Jeffrey Bean) learns that the equally cranky Beatrice (Elizabeth Heflin) loves him, he's hanging from the branches of an enormous peach tree, one that produces lovely pink fruit the size of beach balls. When the evil Don John (David Rainey) goes shooting one day, flowers the size of watermelons are blasted apart.

Fabio Toblini's costumes are a wonder of comedic beauty. The gorgeous women wear slacks under slit skirts or sweetly puffed-up dresses. The men who fly in from the skies wear astronaut suits. When the young Hero (Elizabeth Bunch) tries on her wedding garb, she insists upon wearing a veil that stretches out the entire width of the stage. And when Dogberry (John Tyson), the idiotic though well-intentioned police inspector, arrives to save the day, he's wearing a hysterical blue suit that makes him look like an enormous sapphire-colored chicken as he struts about the stage crowing orders full of ridiculous malapropisms.

The music put together by Jill BC Du Boff ranges from rock to Latino, and the dance scene that comes toward the middle of the show is a thrill of exciting sound as well as gorgeous images (on more balloons, covered with drawings that hearken to Commedia dell'Arte and old-fashioned puppet shows).

The only thing missing from this love story is real sexual chemistry between the lovers. And of course, with all this music and flurry of fun, some of Shakespeare's great lines get lost. But these missing pieces don't really matter. The true love story happening in this production is not between men and women, but between a deeply talented director and the magical capabilities of theater itself.

Eduardo Machado is known for his lyrical scripts full of poetic language. Unfortunately, little of that shows up in The Cook, a political play about Castro's Cuba now running at Stages Repertory Theatre.

The story starts on the eve of Castro's revolution. It's 1958, and Gladys (Annie Henk) is slaving in the kitchen of a Cuban mansion. A New Year's Eve shindig is raging in the other room, and Gladys, along with her husband Carlos (Rodney Garza) and two of her cousins, is frantically trying to serve the wealthy revelers who keep ringing the bell for more food.

Carlos, a chauffeur full of communist machismo, believes in Castro, but Gladys is less sure. She likes her job; she even likes her mistress, Adria (Patricia Duran). But during the party Adria gets a call from her husband. The revolution is happening. So, dressed in her mink coat and carrying a few valuables, Adria hands over $700 to Gladys, instructing her to mind the house till she gets back. Then Adria slips out of her own New Year's Eve gala as her country is about to burn.

The next two acts take place decades later. Act II happens in 1972. Carlos is now happily situated in the Communist regime. He's got a little bit of power, and it's gone to his head. He's taken a lover. Gladys is disillusioned with love and with Castro. But she is still waiting for her mistress to come back, sure of Adria's loyalty.

Act III takes place in 1997, after the Russians have stopped funding Castro. The only thing that keeps Carlos and Gladys from starving is the fact that Castro has opened the country to tourists. Gladys has opened one of the best places to eat on the island -- it's in all the guidebooks. Of course, time has mellowed the couple, who have raised Carlos's love child Rosa (Eva De La Cruz). But when the kitchen gets a blast from the past in the form of Lourdes (Patricia Duran), Adria's daughter, Gladys learns a difficult lesson about the ruling class.

Throughout, the dialogue is stilted and prosaic. Carlos's speeches sound like communist propaganda. Gladys's belief in her old boss is beyond believable. And when Lourdes shows up sounding like nothing more than a royal ruling-class bitch, the play devolves into bombastic silliness. Lourdes's rage at those left behind in poverty-stricken Cuba is cruel to the point of absurdity.

Mariana Carreo King's direction does little to smooth the rough edges of this difficult script, and the young cast is unable to make this group of stereotypes into full characters. The Cook might offer Americans who know little about the Cuban revolution some interesting insight into the politics and history of the movement, but the play's strokes are broad indeed.


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