Shakespeare's banter is perhaps never better than that tossed off by his unlikely lovers Benedick and Beatrice. In director Michael Murray's understated and very natural take on this popular comedy, the leading couple's verbal jousting, though rapier in its precision, betrays an underlying respect and mutual appreciation. And in the capable hands of actors JD Cullum and Torri Higginson, the result is a more sympathetic pair of characters in whom the audience has a vested interest.
Higginson is in total command of Beatrice's urbane wit. She ties up Cullum's Benedick, a soldier accustomed to the respect afforded one's military position, in verbal knots. Meanwhile Cullum flawlessly delivers Benedick's soliloquies, maintaining his steadfast devotion to bachelorhood. His rapport with the audience is impishly engaging. In particular, the scenes where each "overhears" their respective friends tell of their counterparts' supposed love for them are comic gold.
And yet, as confectionary as this all may seem, the Bard takes a decidedly darker turn. A nearly sabotaged marital subplot involving Benedick's fellow soldier, Claudio, and Hero, the daughter of Messina's governor, Leonato, is rendered expertly by Brandon Hearnsberger and Lindsay Gould. Stephen Rockwell as the calculating Don John and Steve Weingartner and Shaun Anthony as his henchmen, Borachio and Conrade, set up this false tale of infidelity while deftly avoiding the mustache-twirling affectations oft seen in this trio of villains. Apollo Dukakis as Leonato delivers a heart-wrenching condemnation of Hero's assumed illicit activities. Where Beatrice and Benedick represent this piece's high style of comedy, Mark Bramhall's Dogberry and Mitchell Edmonds' Verges, a pair of dopey constables, bring down the house with their blustering malapropisms. Solid supporting role work can also be found in Jonathon Lamer's Father Francis, Patrick O'Connell's Don Pedro, and Abigail Caro's Ursula.
Kurt Boetcher's scenic design of stone walls, archways, and potted cypresses looks gorgeous under Ken Booth's dappled lighting. Soojin Lee's costuming for Murray's late 1800s–early 1900s updated setting are perfect as is Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's rustic dance choreography.
Presented by and at A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. March 6–May 21. Variable schedule. (818) 240-0910, ext. 1. www.anoisewithin.org.