I was very thankful intermission came when it did. My cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing. And then, after intermission Master Constable Dogberry came on… and my cheeks hurt again.
This is Portland Actors Ensemble’s 42nd season, and seeing Much Ado About Nothing gives you a hint about why the group has been around so long. They obviously love what they do, and they do it very well.
Director Asae Dean set the play in Napoleonic times, as evidenced by the empire-wasted dresses and Master Constable Dogberry’s fantastic hat and coat. Despite the play’s more serious side, Dean has made sure the action moves right along and the humor is never far away. Just when our hearts are about to break for Claudio as he discovers the truth about Hero, Master Constable Dogberry chimes in with a reminder that he is “an ass.” Or when Leonato challenges Claudio to a duel, Antonio (Leonato’s brother, hysterically played by Patrick J. Cox) goes overboard attacking Claudio with his cane, and we can’t help but laugh.
There are so many good performances in this production that it is impossible to list them all. Sara Fay Goldman plays Hero, and plays her very well. But where she really shines is as Master Constable Dogberry, leading his watch of Keystone Cops, who look like they would be very much at home in the Pirates of Penzance. Goldman’s over-sized gestures and expressions could make the part funny, even without Dogberry’s mixed-up vocabulary, but together they are brilliant. Racheal Joy Erickson’s Beatrice is delightful. She is witty, but not too biting, smart and sassy, but also sweet and loveable. Arthur Delaney throws himself into the role of Claudio 110 percent. Jenny Newbry Waters plays Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, with marvelous intensity and villainy. And Patrick J. Cox’s little old man Antonio threatens to steal the scene every time.
The sets are quite minimalistic, but that doesn’t detract at all from the performance. The latticework trellises and folding chairs are simple but ample. My favorite sets, however, were the “trees” made out of green umbrellas adorned with lemons and leaves, and held by two of the actors. Brilliant!
Possibly the only drawback of this wonderful production is that the music is a bit rough. But when everything else shines so brightly, we can perhaps pardon a slightly-less-than-stellar song or two. Besides, conditions in the parks are not entirely favorable to music, and not everyone is comfortable singing a cappella.
Much Ado About Nothing runs through Labor Day weekend, and it’s only getting better. (The few rough edges I saw opening weekend were completely gone two weeks later.) Go see it, if you possibly can. It’s a wonderful afternoon of theater absolutely free. For dates and locations, visit www.portlandactors.com.