Theater review: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
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A comedy of patented wit, a graceful star and a director’s desire to be bouncy and buoyant — with all that it has going for it, the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ “Much Ado About Nothing” should amount to more than a holiday bauble, right?
The production, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, bends over backward to please. Not only is Helen Hunt playing the caustic romantic cynic Beatrice, a role this Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress seemed destined to play since her ‘Mad About You’ days, but Grammy winner Lyle Lovett is on board, offering a mini-concert of songs with a tenuous thematic link to Shakespeare’s battle-of-the-sexes drollery.
Yet here is an example of a show whose glittering individual parts lose some luster when melded together. Ben Donenberg’s staging transposes the action to a California vineyard, where the wine flows with the gushing force of a Francis Ford Coppola family wedding. But as the sober guest, I couldn’t help casting a dubious eye on some of the preparations.
The vineyard concept is overdone, with characters caressing bottles of wine as though they were irresistible newborns. Glasses are filled, grapes are stomped and cases are shipped. Drunkenness doesn’t break out, but all this vino activity becomes distracting. The novelty of the setting, charming initially as background color, calls undue attention to itself, like those TV commercials that spike their volume to keep viewers from tuning out.
Another troubling sign is that the play is no longer dominated by the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick (Tom Irwin). These amorous antagonists traditionally steal the show even though their role is subordinate to that of Hero (Grace Gummer) and Claudio (Ramon De Ocampo), whose love is put through the wringer through the machinations of the one-dimensionally villainous Don John (Stephen Root, dressed in all black to warn us of his malevolent character).
In what might be considered a coup were it not merely an accident of casting, Leonato (Dakin Matthews) has now taken over “Much Ado,” a development that is akin to Polonius hijacking “Hamlet.” As host to Don Pedro (Geoffrey Lower) and his fellow officers, all of whom are in giddy spirits after their triumphant military campaign, Leonato certainly plays a prominent role in this ebullient comic gathering. And as Hero’s father, he is deeply involved in the devastating turn his daughter’s wedding day takes.
But the only reason Leonato catapults from supporting to starring is the commanding presence of Matthews, whose crisp delivery of Shakespeare’s language gives him a decided advantage over his less experienced cast members. The characterization isn’t particularly subtle or original, but Matthews’ competence reigns supreme.
Not that the ensemble doesn’t adequately illustrate the play. Comic traits are emphasized (if perhaps to a fault in the ancillary roles) and plot points are hit cleanly. Unfortunately, the acting can lend the impression of a coloring-book version of “Much Ado.” It’s all just a tad too diagrammatic. Whatever vibrancy the production achieves comes not from the psychology of the leads but from the artificially bright scenic background (Douglas Rogers’ set is relentlessly cheery).
There’s also a shortfall of romantic chemistry. Gummer (a daughter of Meryl Streep, a point you might surmise on appearance alone) brings a fresh vivacity to Hero, a girl eager to embrace her dawning womanhood. But it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for her connection with De Ocampo’s Claudio. Shakespeare himself doesn’t idealize the couple’s courtship (Claudio’s manner of wooing leaves much to be desired), but the audience needs to be sold on their passion before it’s rocked by violent vicissitudes. The love here seems largely a storybook contrivance.
The same can be said for the extremity of feeling between Hunt’s Beatrice and Irwin’s Benedick. They may be outspoken wags ever-ready with a cutting riposte, but the flush of excitement between them lacks the necessary undertow to suggest that they’re actually ardent soul mates.
Hunt, looking lovely in a series of flattering summer dresses (Holly Poe Durbin served as costume designer), seems on guard against having Beatrice’s wit play her. Her quieter approach, however, comes off as tentative — there’s a muffled quality to her mockery of men. A melancholy streak runs through Beatrice, but she covers it up with a surface gaiety. Words are her shield and sword, and she takes exuberant delight in wielding them. Hunt’s joy is less evident.
Irwin’s portrayal is broader. His Benedick combines sardonic humor with boyish bluster. This is a lively characterization but the lack of synchronicity with his costar is an endemic problem. It’s as though the actors are all groping in the dark for the production’s style.
Other than Matthews, the only performer who locks into a confident groove is Lovett, who ostensibly plays the minor character of Balthasar but is basically on hand to enhance the show’s musical pleasures. Performing with a bluegrass ensemble that doubles as the town’s watch, he offers an intimate jam session that his fans won’t want to miss. (Music director Brian Joseph, who also contributes songs, could have tightened the total number of selections for the sake of time.)
Shakespeare probably wouldn’t have been too bothered about the variety show aspect of this offering. There’s a little something for everyone — just don’t expect a smooth blend.
-- Charles McNulty
Where: Kirk Douglas Theater, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Ends Dec. 19. Tickets: $40 to $70
Contact: (213) 628-2772; www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/MuchAdo
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes