Review: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at NextStop Theatre Company

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Zestful. Savvy. Crafty. Satisfying 

Director Abigail Isaac Fine’s feisty NextStop production of Shakespeare’s battle-of-wits, romantic-comedy Much Ado About Nothing is a stimulating, adult-depth interpretation. It’s not all breezy, dreamy, gauzy midsummer’s night romping, but a show with dark elements. Nevertheless, it offers ample over-the-top mayhem and antics worthy of The Three Stooges in all their glorious lunacy. Fine found fresh ways to frame Much Ado’s witty rejoinders that add depth to this entertaining production.

Beatrice (Kari Ginsburg) dances with a masked man (Jonathan Lee Taylor).  Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Much Ado About Nothing, it is about two central characters. These two are tightly locked together in a verbal duet of rejoinders even while their attraction to one another is apparent.

There is the opinioned, very protective of herself Beatrice (Kari Ginsburg). “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.” Her polar opposite, the womanizer, smart-aleck Benedick (Jonathan Lee Taylor) who sees himself a savage bull not to be tamed, ever.

Beyond Beatrice and Benedick is another younger couple who are key to the unfolding of the play’s plot. These two are smitten from with one another from first sight. Soon enough they making preparations to marry. They are Claudio (Benjamin Stoll) and Hero (Britanny Martz). This being Shakespeare the wedding plans go very array thanks to a villainous Don John (Robert Pike) who plants some totally nasty “fake news.”

Along the way to its well-known ending, Much Ado introduces a number of driving wheel essential characters. There is the upright Don Pedro (James Finley) who is the brother of the foul Don John and wealthy nobleman Leonardo (Allen McRae) who is Hero’s father and uncle to Beatrice.

And Shakespeare is not complete without teasing and comic characters. For Much Ado the comic includes not only some delightful friends but a most bumbling gaggle of not to be forgotten local towns-folk and their titular leader, “the” Constable (Robert Pike double cast).

Casting is key to Fine’s Much Ado. Kari Ginsburg’s “independent woman” approach to her Beatrice registers well with her delivery of contemptuous bon-mots and insults to Benedick. She emotes with a pride about herself and as someone who has been hurt sometime in her past. Ginsburg has an attractive strength to her performance even for a character who introduces herself with sharp and belittling words. But as the play progresses, she finds a way to melt into love without giving up her independent nature and pointed verbal repertoire.

Jonathan Lee Taylor’s Benedick is an obnoxious, smart-ass, blustering dick-head. Then with unexpected encounters, a once hidden away decency and mettle begin to appear. Taylor shows himself to be brave but without a loud manly roar or strut, as he becomes a key protector of the falsely accused Hero. Then he brings a gentleness to his softening toward Beatrice. Taylor matures into a new man not with sound and fury but with smaller gestures.

Brittany Martz’s Hero began before my eyes as a chirpy presence. Over time, Martz portrayal becomes a model of strength and rectitude as she becomes a woman defending herself and her own virtue against false accusations including from her own father. In her work as Hero, Martz showed why the name Hero is so fitting in Much Ado. As Martz plays her, Hero is the most heroic character in the production. I rooted for her as she is almost “done to death by slanderous tongues.” Benjamin Stoll gives an appropriate youthful, quick to temper and accuse outlook to his Claudio. With his rendition, Hero is way too good for Claudio.

Robert Pike has dual personalities in the two characters he plays. As the treacherous Don John, he is an ashen grey mean-spirited presence. His unsmiling unsettling presence can sting others without saying a word. Then in another scene, he becomes an inflated Constable Dogberry chock-full of gloriously delivered malapropisms as he scampers across the stage, or does silly salutes as he cap flies off his head. As Dogberry, Pike seems to takes his acting cue from Shakespeare’s own word for Dogberry: he is “an ass.”

The cast of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

One of the key technical design factors which contributed to enjoyment of Much Ado was Reid May’s dynamite sound design and song selection for the preshow and intermission.  It was a full gamut of 1960’s AM radio hits. The soundscape included titles such as “How Can I Be Sure,” “Maybe,” “Only You,” “Ragdoll,”  “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Runaway,” “It’s My Party,” as well as many others.

Elizabeth McFadden’s set design provided a beachy feel, including sand, for what is mostly a sunny frolic. Jonathan Abolins’ sparkling lighting adds to the summertime feel of many scenes that darkened into moodiness when necessary. Stephanie Fisher’s costumes as best described as summery frocks for the women and character-setting outfits where causal or more formal for the men.

Such juiciness from The Bard should not be allowed to be missed.

With a high-spirited cast of 12, Much Ado About Nothing is a gleeful triumph. I soaked it up! NextStop’s Much Ado is what William Shakespeare wrote it to be – a play that has “a kind overflow of kindness” Take it in.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Much Ado About Nothing plays through February 12, 2017, at NextStop Theatre Company – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Note: The full script for Much Ado About Nothing can be found here.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.