Thick Hollywood-style Southern accents work wonders to mask the sharp tongued battle of wits between Beatrice (Kathlyn Tarwater) and Benedick (A.J. Allegra) in the NOLA Project's production of Much Ado About Nothing. Their repartee almost sounds loving, belying the romantic comedy's show-stealing subplot.
Director Jason Kirkpatrick conceptualized the Southern setting and accents for Shakespeare's comedy. The natural surroundings of the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Scuplture Garden's oak grove also frame the action well. The set consists of a row of five columns, a bench and a table under giant oaks draped with Spanish moss. When off stage, characters stroll through the garden paths behind the action and off in the wings.
In Much Ado, soldiers return from war, and Claudio (John Michael Haas) falls for Hero (Kali Russell), daughter of Leonato (Matt Standley). The couple hits it off instantly, and Leonato offers Claudio his daughter in marriage, and thus his fortunes as well. Don John (Alex Martinez Wallace) is consumed with envy, probably more for the estate, and decides to sabotage the engagement. Meanwhile, Beatrice and Benedick squabble, and the soldiers decide to meddle in his affairs as well, especially his vow never to marry. During a series of parties and social engagements, conspirators make certain their targets overhear falsehoods and rumors that threaten to undermine the two couples' relationships.
A host of excellent performances drive the mischief lurking beneath the swirling parasols and social graces. Wallace animates the villain Don John with histrionic self importance and wicked determination. He enlists Sean Glazebrook's Boraccio, an exuberantly willing and randy coconspirator. Travis Resor turns constable Dogberry into a drunken and bumbling Buford T. Justice.
Though the action revolves around Claudio and Hero, Beatrice and Benedick's rivalry is the more compelling courtship. Tarwater's Beatrice is bold and unflappable and clearly gets the better of Benedick in the battle of wits. Allegra's Benedick is shrewd when he needs to be and at times hilariously clumsy when trying to make an impression on Beatrice. Together they top off a thoroughly witty and charming production. — WILL COVIELLO