All That Glitters 

The Berkeley Rep's Much Ado About Nothing is in grave danger of being stolen by its lavish stage design.

A group of young men return from the war, each changed by their experiences so that their relationships with women are strained and difficult, their ability to communicate compromised. One sets out to be, as Gregory Corso said in his poem "Marriage," an "angel of divorce" simply because he can't stand to see anyone happy. Another, desperate for female companionship, falls head over heels for the first pretty girl he sees and then goes slightly mad when he begins to suspect that she is not virtuous. A third is determined to die a bachelor. The women around them, meanwhile, try to understand male motivations, and scheme charmingly amongst themselves.

This is not modern television, and it's not the story of your or your friends' lives. It's Much Ado About Nothing, one of the wittiest of Shakespeare's works and, as currently presented by the Berkeley Rep on the Roda stage, a visual feast as well. It's almost too rich a feast, in fact -- the show is in grave danger of being stolen by the set design. Director Brian Kulick has moved the story forward in time to just after World War I, and his frequent set-designing collaborator Mark Wendland and lighting designer Michael Chybowski obliged with a fragmented Italian villa that twirls in and out of scenes against a huge glowing moon. An orchard composed of skeletal white trees and baskets of oranges, a running stream for Don John to wash his face in, a masked ball, brilliant red light defining a moment of deception: With its almost Magritte-ish quality, the Rep's Much Ado is easily the most stunning thing I've seen in months, and gives all of the Roda's new backstage toys a real workout. But, perhaps because of all this gorgeous setup, the play itself is a bit lacking in emotional impact.

Francesca Faridany, who gave us an amazingly raw Cassandra last season in the Oresteia, comes back as the clever, contained Beatrice. This time out, she keeps her clothes and wits about her as she jousts with Benedick (the very funny, vibrant Sterling Brown, making his Rep debut) and defends her kinswoman Hero's honor. The tongue-twisting, brain-sparring relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is the part of this play most people remember, and Faridany and Brown could be doing one of those glamorous '40s films here, denying their attraction to each other as their friends plot to hook them up. The timing's right, the chemistry's good, the resolution gratifying. Other subplots do not fare so well in this production; the misunderstanding between Hero and Claudio (exacerbated by the villainous Don John, played in suitably reptilian fashion by Elijah Alexander) seems to be taking place in some other play.

As Dogberry the constable, former Pickle Family Circus clown Geoff Hoyle gave the room a jolt during his second-act appearance. Here he's paired with Rep newcomer and Impact regular Michael Brusasco as Verges (the last time I saw Brusasco, he was wearing a dinosaur suit in The Skin of Our Teeth; he has a wonderful gift for physical comedy). Watching the two work together, one bubbling with malapropisms, the other just bumbling, was a particularly bright spot in a bright, if uneven, production.

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