The Oberon Theatre Ensemble’s production of Much Ado About Nothing is touted in its press release as being stripped of “all unnecessary paraphernalia” and “restored to its pure luster, as intended by William Shakespeare.” What this means for theatergoers who attend the show is an almost bare stage with nothing elaborate by way of sets, costumes, or lighting. While some may be disappointed in the lack of period costumes or may miss the stately view of a complicated set, this stripped-down version does allow Shakespeare’s immortal story of young love, brotherly treachery, and the comic battle of wits between the sexes to shine without distraction.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Much Ado About Nothing is a love story at heart. There is love at first sight, as Claudio falls hopelessly in love with Hero. There is also a slightly more complicated love between Benedick and Beatrice. Their history of exchanging barbed insults slowly and comically turns into a guarded courtship after each is told that in truth the other harbors a secret crush on the object of his or her disdain. This comic love story could easily turn to catastrophe after the treachery of a jealous prince, but fortunately there is the interference of a comical, bungling constable who discovers the plot and sets the wheels in motion for a happy ending.
Without the complications of an elaborate set or costumes that can weigh other Shakespeare productions down, the audience can better appreciate the beauty of the words of Shakespeare’s play. Benedick’s metamorphosis from affirmed bachelor to prospective married man is hilarious. And the malapropisms of Constable Dogberry, combined with the antics of his small squad reminiscent of the Keystone Cops, provide just the right touch of comic relief to events that border on tragedy. The audience is drawn to appreciate the mastery of Shakespeare’s storytelling as well as his wit and comic genius.
Of course, the performances of the actors help to bring Shakespeare’s play to life. Mac Brydon is outstanding as Benedick, and is well matched by the performance of Elizabeth Zins as Beatrice. Mr. Brydon commands the stage with his presence and comic timing. The zingers that the couple throw at each other seem realistic, and as funny as if the words were uttered today rather than written hundreds of years ago. The audience can almost see the wheels turning in his head as Benedick contemplates a romance with Beatrice, and his transformation from woman-hating bachelor to lovelorn suitor is enjoyable to watch.
Cotton Wright, as Hero, is also wonderful in her role as the young lover. She was able to transform effortlessly from lovestruck bride to heartsick woman scorned, conveying her confusion, disbelief, and anguish believably as the play’s events unfolded. Jordon Brown’s Claudio was somewhat disappointing –- I felt that he needed a little more seasoning on the stage to deliver a more convincing performance.
Brad Fryman as Constable Dogberry provided the highlight of the performances. Mr. Fryman’s portrayal was hysterical without seeming out of place with the tone of the entire production. He was totally believable and sympathetic as the bumbling constable, able to get the audience to root for him despite his ineptitude at his job. It is no wonder that this performance was so memorable, as Mr. Fryman is the founder of the Oberon Theatre Ensemble and its current artistic director.
For those interested in a thoroughly enjoyable and affordable off-off-Broadway experience, I highly recommend seeing Much Ado About Nothing. It runs through February 28 at the Beckett Theatre.