BY SANDY STAGGS
The Warehouse Theatre’s new MainStage production of William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is set amidst the backdrop of the film industry, but this comedy about two pairs of Sicilian lovers is no mafia epic or Spaghetti Western.
Director Anne Kelly Tromsness seeks inspiration from the Golden Age of Hollywood, incorporating the glamour and sophistication of the 1940s in this stylish, immersive and unpretentious adaptation.
It’s this ingenious amalgam of art imitating life imitating art that energizes this natural delineation of Shakespeare into a classic screwball comedy in the vein of “His Girl Friday” and “The Philadelphia Story.”
The play even opens with a video newsreel laying the framework at Messina Pictures where screenwriter Don John (Burke Brown as the villainous bastard prince) screeches his metal typewriter to a halt, shutting down production on sound stage 3 on the film “Much Ado About Nothing,” much to the chagrin of the film’s stars.
However, studio head Leonato (Tim Brosnan in an attentive nod to moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner) has an equally pressing matter on his mind: marrying off his only daughter and actress Hero (a wonderfully demure Shelli Delgado in her Warehouse debut) to the handsome but pliable Claudio (a perfectly-cast Christopher Paul Smith, a young actor who has rapidly ascended to leading man status in theatres all over the Upstate).
Their union is coerced with good intentions by other players (Hollywood stars) but later jeopardized at the folly of unscrupulous Don John by convincing Claudio his bride has been unfaithful.
But the more tantalizing dynamic in “Much Ado About Nothing” lies in the relationship between Messina Pictures prized screen legends Benedick (Thomas Azar) and Beatrice, played by guest artist Nakeisha Daniel.
Azar, who last appeared on this stage as the vibrator physician in Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room,” arrives armed with his experience as star of the romantic comedy “Shakespeare on Love” at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta last fall.
Azar brings confidence, class and wit to this role in the vein of screen legend Cary Grant. With an expressed aversion to marriage, Benedick and his romantic nemesis Beatrice coyly vacillate between repulsion and unrequited lust that so immaculately captures the playful shenanigans of duos like Grant and Claudette Colbert in the lynchpin romcom “It Happened One Night.”
Daniel is meticulous in her brazen and delightfully insouciant portrayal of Beatrice. And nothing tops Azar’s kitschy, hilarious lip sync as the film crew shoots Shakespeare’s “Sigh No More, Ladies.”
But there are many moments of pure pleasure by this amazing cast, many playing double roles. The always-charming and versatile David Bean is equally compelling and charismatic as the Prince Don Pedro. Jayce T. Tromsness flaunts his comedic skill as the Friar and the malapropism-spouting Constable Dogberry in charge of a ragtag crew of inept underlings with the daft antics of the Marx Brothers.
In gender-swapping roles, Amy M. Dunlap, clad in Edith Head bangs and thick-rimmed glasses, shines as Antonia (Beatrice’s father in the original text) and Angelina Mussro assiduously assumes the characters of Conrado (Don Pedro’s close friend), as well as Ursula, Hero’s lady-in-waiting.
Sound designer Marc Gwinn lavishly completes the director’s vision with a score of big band music and snippets of dramatic strings ripped from film noir during the play’s more harrowing scenes.
The costumes by Elizabeth Gray are spiffy, stylish and spot-on, beckoning the glamor of old Hollywood from Beatrice’s Kate Hepburn slacks and glorious black-and-white shoes to the silk dressing gowns/smoking jackets she and Benedick adorn later on.
Henry Wilkinson’s scenic design is minimalist and low-key, acutely capturing the façade behind Hollywood sets, but sometimes borders on B-picture aesthetics. There’s lots of shuffling in between scenes to accommodate to the many locations, but with actors and crew on hand, the transitions never drag the pacing.
The universe Ms. Tromsness has created in “Much Ado About Nothing” is a gallant and worthy affair that is nostalgic yet fresh, and one Warehouse patrons will adore.
Louise M. Ochart stage manages this production with lighting design by Wylder Cooper, props by Cassidy Bowles, dance instruction by Maegan Azar, and Jamie Keegstra as assistant stage manager.
“Much Ado About Nothing” continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. (Friday, April 27 performance begins at 7:30 p.m.) and Sundays at 3 p.m. through May 5 at The Warehouse Theatre, 37 Augusta St. in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 235-6948 or visit http://www.warehousetheatre.com.