- Much ado about two cutups in tights.
Porthouse Theatre, on Blossom Music Center's verdant grounds, is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year. Here, between productions of dime-store musicals necessary to fill the coffers, are playful Shakespearean pastorals offering legions of tantalizing, burgeoning players a chance to kick up their heels.
Those in attendance at Much Ado About Nothing, an Epicurean prelude to Hollywood's best romantic screwball comedies, will require no Cliffs Notes, earphones, or sunglasses to ward off some newfangled concept.
Director Terry Burglar offers up a bracingly traditional take on the amorous jousts of Beatrice and Benedict: a lady and soldier of a ferociously merry era, at a time when pyrotechnical wordplay, teasing wit, gallantry, torture, and lovemaking all danced together at the same frantic pace.
As its Dresden merrymakers spin antic hay out of Elizabethan whoopee, mayhem, and Three Stooges bawdries, the spectators in the Porthouse gallery may face an irresistible temptation to kick off their sandals, unhook their girdles, and gambol nude (symbolically, of course) through the nearest babbling brook.
Among those responsible for this untutored giddiness, foremost is that long-deceased Englishman who forged eternal theatrical thunderbolts comic and tragic. All this to please a discriminating, impetuous Tudor queen and then a fop Stuart king, plus generations of brainy Elizabethans searching for something more life-enriching than a tumble at the bawdy house, bear baiting, or inquisitions.
Thankfully, Burglar leaves bare-boned Marxist interpretations to perennial egghead grad students. Instead, he serves a shrewd, savvy ringmaster, a cunning capitalist who knows how to mix and match to please a paying audience. His interpretation of Shakespeare's comedy is straightforward glee (much like the Branagh film), with subtle glimmers of melancholy. Along with scenic designer Todd Dicken and costume designer Sq Campbell, Burglar manages a buoyant alchemy.
There is an enchanting maiden child (Elizabeth Ann Hoag) strolling through the play, exuding wondrous innocence. (One tyke adds charm, more than one, and you're stuck with The Sound of Music.)
In the tradition of Kiss Me, Kate, the Lunts, Liz and Dick, and Cleveland's own Dorothy and Ruben Silver, we have the LaMuras, a star-acting couple tempestuous, egotistical, both basking in their haughty good looks, flashing eyes, ersatz sincerity, and genuine electricity.
If Maggie Smith were thirty years younger, inches smaller, rounder, and lusher, she'd be Elizabeth LaMura's Beatrice. With eyes like china-blue saucers and a flamboyant wit, she issues a mating call with the zing of a martini. Plunging into the local fountain, eavesdropping with a Rosalind Russell comic brio, she is the ideal distaff Tasmanian devil to companion any heterosexual rogue.
Hubby Mark LaMura commences his Benedict in the world's silliest fake beard. He enacts his woman-hating egotist in the spirit of a cadaverous Shaw. He appears more ready to carve out Pygmalion than to ever use his sword for dueling purposes. In his eavesdropping scene, scaling a trellis, shedding his Shavian persona like a snakeskin to reveal a love-struck Tom Sawyer, he envelops the Blossom hills in a silver cloud of bliss. The LaMuras make vivacious music; they are a mellifluous team the Rodgers and Hart of Bard-dom.
Don Pedro, the amiable duke, usually exists to keep the plot spinning. Traditionally he is rendered as a bland bit of aristocratic mutton. Here, in the hands of Cleveland's high-strung wonder Scott Plate, there is a patina of platinum regret. Envision a flaming James Mason or Claude Rains to picture the brooding introspection he brings to this madcap stew, as he futilely proposes to Beatrice, a smile-through-the-tears performance to add a touch of grace.
Allan Byrne Dogberry, the de rigueur clown role, here resembles a harried, overgrown infant. In one of the evening's moments of true comic sublimity, when Dogberry is christened an ass, he and his little rascal cohorts simultaneously drop their props in superbly timed comic cacophony.
It may all be envisioned as a May Day frolic in a queen's garden.