Lawrence Toppman

‘Much Ado’ stimulates both head and heels

You’ve seen theater on proscenium stages, thrust stages, probably even in the round. But how about theater in the anteroom? On the grass? In a parking lot?

So it is in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Paperhouse Theatre’s second outing at Frock Shop. The players roam, romp, take time for us to have refreshments and incorporate a few of us who want to be Thespians for a Day into the show in small roles. (Don’t worry: Nobody’s compelled to take part.)

Paperhouse first did a show there last year, the Oscar Wilde comedy “A Woman of No Importance.” Wilde and Shakespeare remain two of the greatest wits in the English language, and director Nicia Carla makes sure you hear all the words. (The ones that haven’t been trimmed, that is. “Ado” runs less than two hours, including an intermission.)

At times, I was reminded of “Bohemian Grove,” the fascinating piece XOXO assembled last spring. Both limited the number of attendees – two dozen a night for “Ado” – both offered beverages, both required the audience to move around but stay loosely connected. Paperhouse founder Carla even had a memorable role in “Grove” as a celestial ukulele player.

Yet the prevailing mood Thursday night was bonhomie, as if we’d been invited to a house party where the host had hired a Shakespearean troupe to entertain us. We drank wine, spiked lemonade and water; we ate pimento cheese finger sandwiches and artichoke appetizers.

Shakespeare’s play has brief serious sections: Claudio (Deven Ginyard) believes he has killed fiancée Hero (Sarah Woldum) by impugning her honor in public, and Don John (Shawnna Pledger) makes mischief for the pure pleasure of seeing others suffer. (He’s like a dry run for Iago.) None of that registers when John wears a false mustache that looks like a ferret’s tail and speaks like Snidely Whiplash’s female cousin.

Yet Shakespeare mainly means to make us smile at the bickering banter of Benedict and Beatrice (Chester Shepherd and Alexandria White) and the goofy malapropisms of Constable Dogberry (Andrea King in a state trooper’s costume and sunglasses). Here the production succeeds over and over; even the ribald gestures, puns and leers (some inspired by the Bard, some not) all work.

All six actors do double or even triple duty. Shepherd and White not only crack wise as the main couple – for once, you see they’re attracted to each other from the start – but play dumb as Dogberry’s sidekicks. King switches nimbly from Dogberry’s bumbling to the commanding dignity of Leonato, Hero’s outraged father. (At one point, when both have to be onstage, she stays in character as Leonato and seizes a hand puppet for the cop.)

It’s all as light as the cupcakes served after intermission and as fizzy as the hard cider that tickled our noses. Not every comedy could be made to bear this kind of frivolity, but “Much Ado” certainly can.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Much Ado About Nothing’

When: Through June 11 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Frock Shop, 901 Central Ave..

Tickets: $30.

Running time: 115 minutes with one intermission.

Details: paperhousetheatre.com.

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