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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Much Ado About Nothing

I'm getting hungry. Peel me a grape. — Balthasar, (in song) Much Ado About Nothing
Helen Hunt
Shakespeare should always go down this smoothly. Just like &mdash oh it's a cliché but why not? &mdash just like a fine wine.

Director Ben Donenberg has set his production of Much Ado About Nothing for Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles in a California vineyard, and, indeed, it's rare to see a player (even one not named Boracio) not carrying around a glass or bottle of vino. The occasion of this sumptuous Ado actually befits champagne: SCLA &mdash formerly Shakespeare Festival/Los Angeles &mdash celebrates its 25th year in 2010. For this anniversary offering, the company is performing indoors for the first time, has fancier production values, significantly higher ticket prices and a sparkling cast led by Oscar winner Helen Hunt as Beatrice.

There will be those who need to experience yet another Much Ado "(C'mon, Bea and Ben. Just quit the word wars and get a room already") like they need a case of botulism. To them, I would respectfully say: for heaven's sakes, get a ticket. Go! And see that you take a glass of something at intermission to keep with the mood.

Much Ados have been played frenetic and giddy, picking up the "oh my God, I'm in love! I have to act. NOW!" spirit of Beatrice and Benedick and, less successfully, idyllic, tapping into the play's respite from combat placement. Prince Don Pedro's soldiers take a break from acts of heroism on Leonanto's estate and while they're siesta-ing, things go a little haywire.

Donenberg's production comes in squarely between spiked and sleepy. Leonato (played by Dakin Matthews) and his vineyard workers know how to revel (the masked ball in which the Prince woos Hero for Claudio is a sultry grape-stomping affair with the ladies in a big vat to the strains of Dave Frischberg's "Peel me a Grape"). And they know how to sit quietly and enjoy whatever happens to be in the air. The handsome green and white two-storied palazzo designed by Douglas Rogers has vines and grapes sprouting from every nook. Guests, residents and servants alike are constantly stepping out of doors and on balconies to observe the proceedings or to sit and listen as Trevor Norton's lights fade the day away or usher in the sunrise.

Music brings them out of doors as well, and such music it is! A country and bluegrass quartet led by Nickel Creek's Sara and Sean Watkins run through an array of songs (organized by music director Brian Joseph) both folksy and sad. Playing that unique looking minstrel Balthasar, the one who is always putting down his own vocal abilities, is none other than multiple Grammy winner Lyle Lovett who partners beautifully with the Watkinses and who can bring an audience into hushed silence with the soulful song "Promises." Twelfth Night may traditionally be the more musical comedy, but this Much Ado's songs are priceless.

Hijinks are played low key here, and Tom Irwin's philosophical Benedick, vaguely elfin and florid of face, feels less self adoring (and thereby less of a buffoon) than Benedicks of yore. Though Irwin &mdash like Hunt &mdash can turn a witty bantering phrase, one almost gets the sense that these two long time combatants would rather avoid each other than meet and mix it up. Thus when Benedick gets serious, both in love and in challenging Claudio (Ramon De Ocampo) over Hero's honor, it's not so much a stretch for Irwin from "Prince's Jester" to valiant knight.

He has a prize every bit worth winning. Hunt, who played Viola at Lincoln Center immediately winning her Oscar in 1999, offers a Beatrice who is equal parts devotion and pride. Now in her late 40s, the actress is graceful and willowy as ever, employing the character's sharp rejoinders while also suggesting a hint of melancholy. We can see that, for all her merry talk of hating men, this Beatrice has perhaps suffered a romantic blow or two. If she'll take a chance on Irwin's Benedick, it's with some serious reluctance.

Shakespeare doesn't allow poor wronged Hero much of a backbone, but it's a nice directorial touch to see Grace Gummer initially refuse to take Claudio's hand before the rearranged Hero-Claudio marriage at the finale. In addition to being lovely, Gummer (one of Meryl Streep's acting daughters) doesn't convey doormat, and that's to her credit.

The bulk of Donenberg's lineup ranges from strong to stellar. Whether he's playing Shaw or the Bard, there is no ignoring Dakin Matthews, the production's dramaturg as well as its Leonato. Matthews wrings laughs out of the semi-improvised tricking of Benedick and genuinely felt despair over Claudio's shaming of Hero. Chris Butler makes for an interesting Boracio and his instructor in villainy, Stephen Root plays ably against comic type as the bastard brother Don John. And what a pleasure it always is to see David Ogden Stiers back in Shakespeare territory, playing it befuddled and droll rather than clownish as Constable Dogberry. And why not? The Constable too loves his wine. He deserves a drink. Ditto the entire company. Here's hoping they can all be enticed back for SCLA's 26th anniversary offering, whatever it may be.

Much Ado About Nothing
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Ben Donenberg
Composer: Lyle Lovett
Cast: Chris Butler (Borachio), Ramon De Ocampo (Claudio), Dawn-Lyen Gardner (Margaret), Grace Gummer (Hero), Helen Hunt (Beatrice), Tom Irwin (Benedick), Brian Joseph (Sexton, Messenger, Watch), Greta Jung (Ursula), Lyle Lovett (Balthasar) Geoffrey Lower (Don Pedro), Anthony Manough (George Seacoal), Dakin Matthews (Leonato) Stephen Root (Don John), Jared Sakren (Verges/ Antonio), Fred Sanders (Conrade/Friar Francis/Watch), David Ogden Stiers (Dogberry), Sara Watkins (Watch 2) and Sean Watkins (Watch 1/Oatcake)
Production Stage Manager: Joe Witt
Set Design: Douglas Rogers
Costume Design: Holly Poe Durbin
Lighting Design: Trevor Norton
Musical Director: Brian Joseph
Sound Design: Adam Phalen
Choreographer: Julie Arenal
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
From December 1 to 19
Wed.-Sat. @ 8:00 pm, Sat. @ 2 pm., Sun @ 1 pm. And 6:30 pm.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson, based on December 14 performance.
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