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(left to right) Susan Draper, Herman Gambhir, Philip Lehl and Kim Tobin-Lehl star in Much Ado About Nothing at 4th Wall Theatre.

With a minimalist set and contemporary costumes, co-directors Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Lehl did an almost impossible feat: They used five actors to play twelve distinctive roles in Shakespeare's timeless play Much Ado About Nothing. Men play women, women play men and major roles switch to minor roles with the most subtle prop or costume change. I have seen bigger, lavish productions of MAAN with more actors, grander costumes and ornate sets. But I have never seen Shakespeare performed quite like this—and I loved it.

For those unfamiliar with the play, Benedick claims to be a confirmed bachelor, lamenting the loss of his comrade, Claudio, to falling in love with the beautiful Hero. But as the play progresses, he becomes more taken with the witty Beatrice, who stated that she never wants to marry. The play depends on familiar scenarios that are Shakespeare signatures: disguises, misunderstandings, wit and love. It struck me how contemporary the play still seems—with the war between the sexes revealing the frustrations that men and women still feel today. Tobin-Lehl does a memorable job of expressing Beatrice’s frustrations with being female and being expected to “win” a male suitor. Her exasperation at not “being a man” or being able to take matters into her own hands when Hero is viciously and unfairly framed for immoral behavior is one of the highlights of the show.

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Kim Tobin-Lehl and Philip Hays perform in Much Ado About Nothing.

Watching Lehl was thrilling, as he transforms from the lead role Benedick into at least four other minor characters (honestly, I lost count) through something as simple as grabbing a cane and then channeling a completely different character. Tobin-Lehl followed suit, changing from the witty and acid-tongued Beatrice with perfect comedic timing to a cowboy-hat wearing scoundrel with a Texas accent. It was completely believable. 

Other actors followed the format, with Herman Gambhir playing the lovestruck Claudio as well as the prissy Ursula with great comic effect. Philip Hay, who played Don Pedro, among others, was equally amazing along with Susan Draper, who played the slandered Hero, as well as several other characters. It was like watching a Master Class in acting.

In addition, all the players had an impressive command of physical comedy, which brought the language of Shakespeare to life and made the material more accessible to contemporary audiences. Even my 15-year-old was following along and laughing at all the right moments. 

By minimizing the costumes and sets and allowing the actors to speak directly to the audience during confessional monologues, everyone was engaged as the actors used the entire room, including speaking behind the audience from a balcony and even sitting with the viewers.

As the co-directors explain, “We have always been interested in breaking down the barrier between our audience and Shakespeare’s words. Our aim has always been to strip away anything unnecessary and to let your imagination tell the story with us.”  In this, they have succeeded.

Much Ado About Nothing

Thru Dec. 24. 4th Wall Theatre Company, 1824 Spring St. 832-786-1849. 4thwalltheatreco.com

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