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STAGE REVIEW : Production Thrives on Lovers' Tug-of-War

August 12, 1993|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — Shakespeare was right: Love can be a vexation, especially for sweethearts who would rather snipe than snuggle.

Take Beatrice and Benedick, his famous tusslers in "Much Ado About Nothing." Wit is a weapon and a release for this ring-ready duo. They never met a savage pun or a slicing aside they didn't like on their way to romance.

There's sizzle in Beatrice and Benedick's grinning confrontations, a truth that doesn't escape Deborah Grattan and Brenan Baird at the Long Beach Playhouse, where director Darlene Hunter-Chaffee has mounted a robust, traditionally set production.

Grattan, who recently portrayed Titania in the Laguna Playhouse's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," gives Beatrice a feistiness that serves as fair warning to all the men who pass her way through the streets of Messina: Reckon with me at your own peril.

Baird's Benedick takes it seriously; his jabbing remarks come with a hint of anxiety and resignation, as if Benedick knows he'll succumb to both her spunk and other charms eventually.

It does take a while, though. Shakespeare's infatuation with trickery, charade and deception first have to take a wide comic turn as Beatrice and Benedick's cronies delight in angling the couple into love. Once maneuvered, Baird and Grattan fall into a sort of giddiness.

Benedick is particularly touched by the sweet emotion, and Baird infuses him with an elation that he can barely restrain. Baird uses his lanky frame as a goofy, animated tool, letting Benedick revel in his feelings.

There's more to "Much Ado About Nothing" than Beatrice and Benedick's furious courtship, however. The more chaste (and less entertaining) love between the virginal Hero (Deborah Sheridan-Taylor) and upstanding Claudio (Kenny Rice) pushes Benedick and Beatrice off center stage, and that's when Shakespeare's comedy, and Hunter-Chaffee's production, clunk a bit. Sheridan-Taylor and Rice are able enough, but you yearn for the fizz of their counterparts.

Hero and Claudio, of course, give "Much Ado About Nothing" its major plot turn, when the evil Don John conspires to thwart their marriage. Sean Hilferty plays Don John efficiently, with a menacing stare, and Steven Fiorillo turns his chief henchman, Borachio, into a slimy type eager to do mischief.

There's troublemaking in constable Dogberry as well, but of a more buffoonish stripe. Scott Howard Allen lets it loose with Shakespeare's clown, who luckily uncovers the plot, bringing bliss again to the land. Allen's Dogberry is a blustery hulk of self-importance; he's a fidgety, oversized Deputy Barney Fife, Old World-style.

* "Much Ado About Nothing," Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees Aug. 22 and 29. Ends Sept. 4. $10. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 2 hours.

Jerome Loeb: Leonato

Deborah Sheridan-Taylor: Hero

Deborah Grattan: Beatrice

Brenan Baird: Benedick

Douglas Dupuy: Don Pedro

Kenny Rice: Claudio

Sean Hilferty: Don John

Steven Fiorillo: Borachio

Tony Grande: Antonio

Scott Howard Allen: Dogberry

Barry Wallace: Messenger/second watchman

Rachel Malkenhorst: Margaret

Becky Bishop: Ursula

Jim McElenney: Friar Francis

A Long Beach Playhouse production. Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Darlene Hunter-Chaffee. Sets and lighting by M. Scott Nine. Costumes by Donna Fritsche.

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