Spot-on Performances Make UpStage Theatre's Much Ado About Nothing Must-See Theater

The setup:

For its second foray into Shakespeare, Theatre UpStage presents much-loved comedy Much Ado About Nothing, in which romantic misunderstandings lead to delightful conflicts and much confusion.

The execution:

UpStage Theatre shares its space at Lambert Hall with Opera in the Heights, which is having a full season of Shakespearean operas, so the set stays up for the season. Fortunately, it is imposing, with a balcony, tall columns, and double doors at each side - it has an Elizabethan feel, and serves this production well. The plot centers on Hero, daughter of Leonato, governor of Messina - she is betrothed to Claudio, but deception causes Claudio to lose faith in her virtue. The part of Claudio, an easy dupe and a bit of a cad, is played by Joe Wendt, who carries the narrative but doesn't find the charisma to make him worthy of Hero. The part of Hero is underwritten - she has little to do except be victimized - but Samantha Walker delivers such radiant beauty that the role comes to vibrant life, and her poise and luminous charm glide us past some potholes in the plot.

The sub-plot permits more energy. Benedick is a confirmed bachelor, a swashbuckler determined to avoid the bonds of matrimony, and veteran Brian Heaton, who was so good as Mercutio in UpStage Theatre's Romeo and Juliet last year, brings it. His energy, intelligence and spontaneity create a vivid portrait of a courier confident in the wisdom of his choices, ready to lead, yet vulnerable to Cupid's arrow. It is a subtle portrait, salted with humor, and Heaton has the presence to dominate the stage when appropriate. His attitude toward marriage is shared by Beatrice, who trades witticisms with him. She is played by the young Tyrrell Woolbert, who matches Heaton in the brilliance of her portrayal, intelligent, charming and with a captivating inner power. Their chemistry is strong, seductive, sensual and hilarious - I hope someday to see them paired as Petruchio and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. They are well-met indeed.

UpStage Theater's Artistic Director Sean K. Thompson directed, and he has a gift for the physical comedy so important to Shakespeare. Both Heaton and Woolbert are excellent at extended pantomimes as they eavesdrop on conversations, and they make these plausible, varied, and highly amusing. Shawn Havranek as the constable Dogberry creates a vivid portrait, as does his companion Verges, played by Meaghan Golden Avocato; both are wonderfully funny, thanks to amusingly stylized body language and the deft hand of the director.

Elyse Rachal as Margaret delivers on the high spirits and earthy sensuality the Bard had in mind. David Chapin as Don Pedro, a Prince, has an imposing, distinguished presence. Jim Wyatt as Leonato, the governor of Messina, doesn't provide the desired authority, and takes an unnecessary pause before most of his lines. Don John, as the villain, can be an interesting role, a minor Iago, but Stephen Foulard fails to find the relish in it, and whispers many of his lines. The cast is large, and not all can be equally good, but vocal lapses can be corrected. The costumes by Heather Gabriel and Helena Zodrow are excellent. The pace starts to falter halfway through Act One, and slows needlessly to a crawl in Act Two - the crude plot is a scarecrow to hang comedy on, and could be treated less ponderously. But the success of the play depends on the reluctant yet enthusiastic love between Benedick and Beatrice, and Thompson has found this heart wonderfully.

The verdict:

Stunning spot-on performances by Brian Heaton and Tyrrell Woolbert as Benedick and Beatrice, with vivid minor characters adding rich humor, make this delightful Shakespeare comedy must-see theater.

Much Ado About Nothing continues through October 27 at UpStage Theatre at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd. For ticketing or information, call 713-838-7191 or contact the company website.

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Jim Tommaney