Sets don't matter much at PushPush Theater. A few red curtains, something that looks like burlap, a lot of red-orange paint, and a beat-up wooden chair are enough to evoke all of Messina in director Tim Habeger's minimalist Much Ado About Nothing. Ditto the costumes: Don Pedro's soldiers wear black -- t-shirts, fatigues, boots, Beetle Bailey caps. The women wear nondescript contemporary clothing that may have come from their closets.
But Habeger -- a terrific actor, passionate artistic director, and thoughtful director -- apparently wants nothing in the way of Shakespeare's words: By stripping Much Ado down, he sacrifices the play's romance and its storytelling. The actors -- six play 18 characters -- come at us from every conceivable angle: from the wings and backstage; from above, behind, and among us, like ants crawling out of woodwork. They often speak in a rush, mumbling or muffing lines. Many don't look mature enough to drink at the lobby bar, let alone give credibility to characters that are middle-aged or older.
PushPush, which opens its 10th season with this staging, tends to emphasize process over product, so Much Ado may play better from the stage than from the audience. If you're intimate with the piece, you may appreciate the idiosyncrasies of Habeger's vision: a ball scene in which revelers zoom to and fro in the fashion of the Marx brothers, clear plastic masks obliterating the actors' features in an eerie, back-alley kind of way; Dogberry's charge to the Watch, which evokes the Keystone Kops; a Borachio reminiscent of Ed Sullivan's amigo, Se単or Wences.
Justin Welborn, who plays Claudio (primarily), is one of the more experienced hands here. As the soldier, he's all business; as a would-be lover, he conjures sheepishness, respect, and outrage before Claudio gets his comeuppance. By Act II, however, Welborn -- not always known for his restraint -- is so oversized it's as if he's taking adrenaline shots backstage. Dikran Tulaine sleepwalks as the governor of Messina, his Leonato looking not the least bit stately but more like he hasn't bathed or changed clothes in a fortnight.
Beatrice and Benedick (Brenda Norbeck, Randy Havens) double, interestingly, as petty plotters Conrade and Borachio. Norbeck's Beatrice, however, is sadly misguided. The lady should be a nimble wit meant to entertain and even sting at times, but Norbeck makes her a wholly unlikable, petulant brat who'd use words to kill if she could. Havens understands Benedick but just hasn't matured physically enough to be a convincing soldier-slash-lover-slash best friend. Hero can be olive drab, a thankless role, but Claire Christie (who also plays Don John, Antonio, and part of the Watch) plays her with a deep-down dignity and grace.
This tepid two-hour stay with Shakespeare feels more gimmicky than new; more of an acting exercise that a serious attempt to keep the meat and trim the fat. Ultimately it may be much ado about something, but that something has yet to be revealed.
Much Ado About Nothing runs Sept. 15-Oct. 21 at PushPush Theater, 121 New St., Decatur, Ga. (404) 377-6332. Website: www.pushpushtheater.com.