Much Ado About Nothing

a kate west review

by William Shakespeare
directed by Ben Donenberg
songs by Lyle Lovett (Dave Frischberg, Brian Joseph, Wendy Waldman,
Sara & Sean Watkins)
presented by The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
at the Kirk Douglas Theatre/Center Theatre Group
9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City 90232
contact 213-972-7231 or 213-628-2772
running December 1-19, 2010

You don't think normally of Lyle Lovett when you think of Shakespeare (at least most of us don't). But you can see works by both this month in Culver City at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. This Center Theatre Group's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" also features Tom Irwin ("My So-Called Life") and Helen Hunt ("Mad About You"). The saucy tale takes place in a California vineyard, lustily brought to colorful life by Set Designer Douglas Rogers. Love and misunderstandings ensue, set to the tune of Lovett's laid back musicianship and Brian Joseph's musical direction.

The essential story is of Benedick (Irwin) and Beatrice (Hunt), two would-be lovers who initially hate each other (sound familiar, Hollywood?) You can guess the rest. In the meantime, cousin Hero (Grace Gummer) has to prove her virtue, in spite of the evil Don John (Stephen Root, "Newsradio"), Boracio (Chris Butler) and her distrusting finance Claudio (Ramon De Ocampo). Hero's father Leonato (Dakin Matthews) owns the vineyard with his brother Antonio (Jared Sakren) and likes to oversee his family's love life in addition to cultivating grapes. Don Pedro (Geoffrey Lower) is back from fighting with the rest of his crew and is ready to help meddle.

Lyle Lovett and his merry band (Lyle playing minstrel Balthasar at least on closing night) wander in and out of the drama, strumming and singing lyrics to match the mood and plot. Set against a sunny villa (with the occasional dramatic lightning storm), the music is cheery and fun and helps propel the story. Lovett does his best with the text, but really, it's more of a delight to be in his presence and witness the joy he has in performing.

As for the acting, it is top-notch professional for the most part, aside from Helen Hunt's signature low-energy mannerisms as Beatrice. The "naturalness" she is touted for on screen doesn't really work on stage, especially in the expressive world of Shakespeare, so it is challenging to have sympathy for her lovelorn bacherlorette. On the other hand, Dakin Matthews is superb as Leonato, a consummate classic actor, making the Bard accessible to all and able to transform from giddy to desolate with a single deft turn of phrase. Tom Irwin does well as a jovial Benedick, if a bit older than normally portrayed (but still kinda sexy). David Ogden Stiers ("M*A*S*H") also delights as the hilariously befuddled watchman Dogberry. Everyone else is fine and the action is finely tuned by director Ben Donenberg. Julie Arenal's choreography looks nice, but it is sometimes hard to know who to focus on during some of the more winding dance numbers.

It is a frothy, light fare, interspersed with hints of darker cruelty. The music helps the lighter side, not so much the dark, but in the end, we all want a happy ending so that works out alright. As in many of Shakespeare's comedies, the cruelty bits are not really redeemed, but rather accepted as a necessary balance to happier times. Not necessarily fair (or modern), but there you have it. If it makes you feel better, check out the Gallo wine during intermission to get into the spirit of things.

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