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THEATER REVIEW / 'MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING' : You Heard It Here : Shakespeare's comedy turning on overheard conversations receives a nicely paced presentation.


Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" might be taken as a tract against eavesdropping: In it, several characters find themselves in embarrassing situations, most of which are the result of overheard conversations.

The comedy is the current production of the Moorpark-based California Shakespeare Company. Like everything else that director William H. Fisher and his group have put on the boards, it's worth seeing: a nicely paced, audience-friendly presentation. As a bonus, the play isn't overexposed in Ventura County, where every year someone or another seems to be putting on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Macbeth" or "Romeo and Juliet."

On the downside, the cast isn't as consistently strong as those in some of the group's previous shows. On top of that, one actor's characterization goes beyond what could be called controversial. It's downright eccentric and may variously distress, confuse and amuse members of the audience.

The story centers on two young couples. Claudio and Hero (that's a girl) are in love practically from the beginning; Benedick and Beatrice despise one another--in addition to love itself--so completely that it takes the entire length of the play until they, too, become enamored of one another.

The villain, Don John, is determined to upset the Claudio-Hero romance and succeeds, probably beyond his own expectations. And, of course, there are the usual number of companions, attendants, nobles and clergy.

Aaron Craig, who alternates between various Ventura County Shakespeare productions and the Moorpark Melodrama, plays naive Claudio, who is paired with Sonja Hillman, a talented newcomer to local theater as the indisputably virginal (or is she?) Hero.

Hugh McManigal is the cocky Benedick, with Rena Derezin, another welcome newcomer to the area, as Hero's spunky cousin, Beatrice. The initial relationship between Benedick and Beatrice is analogous to that between Petruchio and Kate in "The Taming of the Shrew."

Damian Gravino is fine as Hero's father, Leonato, the governor of the city of Messina, Italy, where the play is set. And Greg Fitchett and Richard Foss are noteworthy as the good guy/bad guy half-brothers, Don Pedro and Don John.

Several actors play multiple roles, none more effectively than Joel George, who quadruples as a messenger, an attendant of Don Pedro who's bursting with song, Leonato's brother and an assistant constable.

More problematic is the constable himself, named Dogberry. Alan Price, one of Ventura County's better-known young actors, has taken it upon himself to portray Dogberry in the manner of Rich Little as Richard M. Nixon. Admittedly amusing (at least for a while), the portrayal has nothing to do with Shakespeare, Dogberry or even Nixon.

And no matter what you think of the former President, Dogberry definitely isn't a Nixonian character, or vice versa.

By allowing Price that indulgence, however, director Fisher has opened the doors to some interesting concepts for future California Shakespeare Company shows.

How about Roseanne Arnold as Portia? Or Jerry Lewis as Iago? Or perhaps even Don Knotts as Sir John Falstaff?

Hmmm. Might have possibilities.


"Much Ado About Nothing" continues through April 10 at the California Shakespeare Company Theater, 6685 Princeton Ave. (in the Varsity Park Plaza shopping center), Moorpark. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $12 general admission; $10 for students and seniors. All tickets are sold in advance only; for reservations or further information, call 498-3354 or 373-9243.

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