‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse by Amanda Gunther

FOUR STARS
Summer is well underway as the Laurel Mill Playhouse presents its Annual Summer Youth Shakespeare Theatre and their production of Much Ado About Nothing. Directed by Michael V. Hartsfield, this classic comedy is a lighthearted tale of love and happiness with a few villainous knaves set to spoil everyone’s good fun thrown into the mix. One of Shakespeare’s better comedies this is the perfect play for the YST this summer.

Benedick (Jacob Rocco) and Beatrice (Emen-Obong Akpan). Photo by  Val Kilgallon.

Benedick (Jacob Rocco) and Beatrice (Emen-Obong Akpan). Photo by Val Kilgallon.

Doubling up as the show’s set designer, Director Michael J. Hartsfield takes the production back to its original roots and keeps it simple. No major crazy updates to lands far away or modernization, just gentle white columns and a sandy stone wall with ivy that sprawls itself about in a light smattering for a decorative touch. Messina’s the place, a port city at the toe of Italy, and the stage design pays tribute to the simplicity of such a gentle city in the mid 16th Century.

Costume Designer Kim Delk brings out the best of the shimmery fabric to fashion doublets, tunics, and matching hats for the gents as well as incorporating paisley and floral prints throughout the corsets and skirt work of the women. Antonia’s dress, the white lacy flowing number, stands out the most as the loveliest piece in Delk’s design work.

Hartsfield gets clever in his casting to accommodate the multitude of women in the YST, changing Senior Leonato and his brother Antonio to Lady Leonata and Antonia (Meghan Abdo) respectively. Leonata (Nsikan Akpan) is a splendid character that plays well against Beatrice, being her lone relative in this production. Akpan delivers an infuriating speech early in Act II with such a rapid tongue you have to watch her facial expressions and body language to really feel the full intent of the words.

The show moves quickly without ever feeling rushed, though there are definitely some speeches, delivered primarily by Leonata, Borachio (Victor Deppe) and occasionally some from Benedick (Jacob Rocco) that could use some slowing down. At times these young actors just seem to excited to share their lines with us that we miss some of Shakespeare’s more witty jokes laid into the lines as they are delivered at breakneck speeds. For the most part everyone in the play can be heard clearly, though Don John (Justin Young) the villainous character is extremely soft spoken and very difficult to understand when plotting. Young makes up for this by looking nefarious and keeping a deadpan expression upon his face, adding a hint of humor to his character’s dark side.

Dogberry (Christina O’Brien) brings a good deal of comedy to the production with his constant misuse of words. O’Brien adds a vehement intolerance to the character with her spastic little outbursts, wrangling Verges (Mary Kilgallon) into the silly trial of the knaves gone wrong. O’Brien delivers the noteworthy line, “I am an ass!” with a great deal of comic force behind it, garnering the laughs such a line deserves.

The young lovers, Claudio (Nicholas Whittaker) and Hero (Skylar Hill) have a smitten affection between them until things go wrong. Whittaker is particularly emotional when he speaks, making clear distinctions between his amorous moments and his enraged ones. Watch his facial expressions closely, when mourning during the epitaph scene in Act II you can feel the pain on his face.

Orchestrating the matchmaking is the noble Don Pedro (Jamal Barringer) who is a jolly good sole, chuckling and laughing with the best of them. Barringer has a keen sense of how to make merry upon the stage even if he appears a little lost in his own merriment at times. Playing part in the plot to bring Beatrice (Emen-Obong Akpan) and Benedick (Jacob Rocco) together, his merriment becomes contagious.

Rocco, as the suave and cheeky Benedick, brings good diction and pronunciation to the performance. He understands the meter of Shakespeare even if he rushes through it at times. His chemistry and witty repartee with Beatrice makes for a good deal of levity in the production, and he takes her insults with tongue in cheek and trades them back just as well.

Akpan as Beatrice is the shining star of the production. Delivering all her lines with well-paced rhythms and emotional expressions she has a true understanding of Shakespeare for her young age. She plays Beatrice with a saucy edge, not afraid to muck about with the boys and when delivering the notorious ‘beard speech’ she does so with a fiery tongue that gets a good rise out of all those listening.

Claudio (Nicholas Whittaker) and Hero (Skylar Hill). Photo by Val Kilgallon.

Claudio (Nicholas Whittaker) and Hero (Skylar Hill). Photo by Val Kilgallon.

Under Hartsfield’s skilled direction this is a solid youth production that showcases a variety of talents for these young performers.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one intermission

Much Ado About Nothing plays through July 14, 2013 at The Laurel Mill Playhouse— 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For reservations call the box office at (301) 617-9906.

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