With fine lead performances by Lucius Robinson and Katherine Barron, there's strong work at the center of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Patrick Torres' first directorial bow as the new artistic director at Raleigh Little Theatre. Setting Shakespeare's comedy (and near-tragedy) about love and gender roles among a group of military officers on an Italian holiday at the end of World War II is a conceptual gambit that pays off. Under Torres' direction, Robinson finds the physical comedy of Dick Van Dyke in his Benedick, while Barron hits the Hepburn notes of the acerbic Beatrice.
Jim O'Brien gave a welcome note of gravitas to Leonato, the governor of Messina, guardian of Beatrice and father of the wronged Hero (a fetching Sarah Beth Short), and Scott Nagel was an animated Don Pedro, prince and commander of the enlisted men. William Cannon was engaging as a Buddy Holly-version of Balthasar, as were comics Doug Kapp and Fred Corlett as addled policemen Dogberry and Verges.
But these strong performances did not square with the obvious, unexpected difficulties we saw on opening night, including beginner-level projection problems and paper-thin characterizations, mainly among the villains. Those problems speak to an ensemble that wasn't fully prepared for opening night.
A director's maiden voyage with a new company is bound to be a shakedown cruise in some part, as artists meet and figure out how to work with one another. This one raises troubling questions about the region's oldest community theater company, questions that won't be fully answered until we've seen further work.