By Bridgette M. Redman
There is much ado that can be made about the Hilberry Theatre’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” This production, directed by Matthew Earnest, demonstrates how beautiful a production can be when all the actors and technical staff share the same vision and commit fully to it.
The Wayne State graduate students who make up the Hilberry company demonstrate the advantage of having a troupe that works together long enough to develop the essential chemistry and trust that can transfer from backstage teamwork to onstage magic. The love affairs between Claudio (Christopher Ellis) and Hero (Carollette Phillips) and then Beatrice (Vanessa Sawson) and Benedict (Dave Toomey) were thoroughly believable, and the complexities of the relationships were communicated with every move, intonation, expression and word.
Toomey in particular created a Benedict without bluster. He was thoughtful, intelligent, witty and sensitive. It was easy to see why his comrades loved him, why Beatrice would challenge him and why he would ultimately fall pretty to the state of marriage that he mocked. He took brave choices not just in the way he delivered the lines, but in the silences that he created, silences that invited the audience into his mind and let them see what he was thinking. His journey was apparent and thus completely believable.
Sawson’s Beatrice was a joyful, merry soul. Sawson found witty ways to deliver traditional scenes that made them feel fresh and new. She was a loving creature who was as lacking in shrewishness as Toomey was in bluster. They were two heroes worth rooting for. Sawson did occasionally drop the ends of her lines, causing them to be swallowed up at the sides.
Earnest made a brave choice in the casting of Ellis as Claudio and Alec Barbour as the Prince, Don Pedro. Barbour had all the traditional looks of a Claudio while Ellis had more of the royal bearing. However, both succeeded in furthering a vision of Claudio as the strong, silent type to match Phillips’ gentle delicacy and the Prince as a merry prankster who lacks the authority to keep his wayward brother in line.
Joshua Blake Rippy as Dogberry and Sara Hymes as Verges made a perfect pair in roles that are difficult to do well. They were constantly amusing as the oafish clowns who were entirely lacking in the wit of those in dallying in Leonato’s household.
Scenic Designer and Technical Director Pegi Marshall-Amundsen made the most of the space through simple scenic elements that required little time to set or strike. The most impressive piece was the hedge-like green backdrop with its many jigsaw openings that allowed characters to hide, spy and pop out in the most unexpected places. Like the actors themselves, it was a piece that carried the Earnest’s vision of a play about noting and noticing.
In a production that is willing to take risks to achieve new heights, it is impossible that there not be some flaws. While it is an impressive bit of stage magic to have actual rain falling upon revelers, the price of that business was the constant crunching of boots across the noisy gravel that served as water reclamation. It was a constant distraction that drew attention away from the very fine job the actors were doing.
The dances yielded mixed results. The masquerade in which the Prince woos Hero for Claudio was fun, energizing and filled with delightful bits and business. It set the stage for the play that followed and the interpretation presented. Later choices were not as effective in their execution. An odd bit of choreography at the second wedding seemed like it was going to go somewhere, but didn’t. It was merely movement for the sake of movement. The final dance lost some of its power by lasting too long.
Topher Payne’s Balthasar and his performance of “Sigh No More” earned well-deserved applause from a charmed audience. It was a masterful piece of direction from Earnest and strong musical choice by Music Composer/Director George Abud.
Hilberry’s “Much Ado About Nothing” celebrates all the delightful elements of this classic play while demonstrating exactly why it is timeless in its appeal to all generations that are populated with lovers and would-be lovers.
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 19, plus Wednesday, Nov. 2. $12-30. 313-577-2972. http://www.hilberry.com