Timeless Shakespeare is always welcome; Much Ado About Nothing is always fun. When a performance brings together local resources and big town talent, everybody smiles. Live drama is the best, and this is a must-see for New Bern! Mary McGinley, Producing Artistic Director and founder of the Carolinian Shakespeare Festival, has made magic with Much Ado About Nothing, bringing out the best in her company and the best of the awkward space of Cullman Performance Hall, embellished for this performance with a pair of huge backyard-carpenter steps from the stage to the audience.

There was some problem with the air conditioning in the otherwise new Cullman Hall, which made ushers spend time explaining that the rear half of the auditorium was not available for seating. I hope that this problem can be rectified. Fifteen minutes before curtain, a PowerPoint show played about the presenting sponsor. The audio, both in the choice of music and downsampling, left everything to be desired. Near the end of the PowerPoint the music went from “tasteful” strings to loud and puzzling piano jazz. It was a long five minutes. Following the PowerPoint, Young Company member Noah Auten came on to warm up for the players with his ‘ukase’ (as Dogberry might have called the ukulele). Auten made a valiant effort, but he’s no Iz Kamakawiwo’ole, neither player nor singer, and his efforts to interact with the crowd were full of awkward pauses. However, once the play began, Auten was a valuable member of the company, especially as Balthazar, the Prince’s gentleman.

The goose-stepping and fool-playing of Jaike Foley-Schultz (Dogberry) were excellent, but his overly crisp and rapid delivery meant that a lot of his classic funny lines were lost. Verges and the Sexton, played respectively by Liz Watts and Jacob Fisher, were an awkward contrast. Watts played Verges in a way that made Watts, not Verges, look old. Fisher’s attempts to play the Sexton as an old man required moves that were completely alien to Fisher and made him look a lot younger than he is.

One could not ask for a better starter than John Grady, perfectly cast as Leonato. Grady is easy to understand, has commanding stage presence, knows how to get the most out of his lines, and never tires on our ears.

Anna Phyllis Smith is a charming Beatrice and plays well to Scott Renzoni’s Benedick. Renzoni’s flat delivery of his early lines reminded me in an unpleasant way of Kevin Coster in Dances with Wolves, but Renzoni grew powerfully into his role and by the beginning of the second part was really strong and convincing. His acrobatics as he eaves-dropped were spectacular, leading him all over the hall. Anna Phyllis Smith is equally exciting. Some of her strongest speeches seemed a little hysterical. These instances were few and minor, but she did occasionally seem like she had lost control of her part. Her eaves-dropping role was as funny as Benedick’s.

Phillip Burke (playing Don Pedro), like Renzoni, had a hard time getting his feet wet. He was wooden and forced early on, but soon got the hang of his part and was a believable and passionate character.

Although Shakespeare doesn’t give Hero a big part, Sydney Angel gives it her all. Claudio’s part is much broader and convincingly played by Noah Fisher. Fisher is just about perfect, with good delivery, splendid gestures, and able footwork.

Donna Joan (Don John in the original) is ably played by Penny Viglione. She is arch, funny, and evil by turns as required.

Here is powerful acting, both funny and famous dialog, strong local talent and strong players from off. Carolinian Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing is not to be missed. For information on performance dates, times and pricing, please view the sidebar.