warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Theater Review: "Much Ado About Nothing" At The Kirk Douglas

Jason Kehe |
December 16, 2010 | 3:29 p.m. PST

Senior Arts Editor

Helen Hunt as Beatrice and Tom Irwin as Benedick in the Kirk Douglas's production of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" (Photos courtesy of Center Theatre Group)
Helen Hunt as Beatrice and Tom Irwin as Benedick in the Kirk Douglas's production of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" (Photos courtesy of Center Theatre Group)
There’s something to be said for straightforward Shakespeare, without too many gimmicks — and that’s, for the most part, what this production of “Much Ado About Nothing” is. Convention doesn’t get challenged in any daring way, but this no-nonsense reading by mostly capable actors in a picturesque setting goes down with the satisfying ease of a good wine.

As it happens, wine plays a starring role in this production; it gets more scenes than any of the actors. The setting has been relocated to a present-day California vineyard, where the wine flows as freely as Shakespeare’s words, which in this play are some of his wittiest. The new scenery doesn’t do much for the show, but it’s pretty to look at (Douglas Rogers did the design), and the wine gives the actors something to do between scenes — namely, pour it and drink.

The only other invention in this production is the presence of a chorus, which comically doubles as the night watch in the second act. Led by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett, reading the role of Balthasar like an endearing new kid on the block, the chorus sings a number of original country tunes, which are intended, it seems, to comment on the play’s themes. The music is good, and Sara Watkins, with her earthy-folk lilt, complements Lovett well, but they go on too long, and take away from some of the play’s action.

But the chorus might not be entirely at fault for this, because this cut of “Much Ado” — a play about insecure men courting triumphant women — seems unbalanced and interferes with the play’s flow. Although there are several competing plot lines, at the heart of the play is the relationship between Beatrice (Helen Hunt) and Benedick (Tom Irwin). It’s her wit pitted against his, and the skirmish is epic. Beatrice is the worthier of the two, but it is clear from the start that the two are meant for each other.

But in this “Much Ado,” the Beatrice-Benedick plotline gets a little diminished. Not helping is Hunt, whose Beatrice is milder than most, and seemingly uncaring. There’s no doubt that Hunt, an Emmy and Oscar winner, gets what she’s doing — the scene where she bewails her powerlessness as a woman is passionate and supremely well played. But her choices elsewhere are not nearly as effective. Compared to a much wilder Irwin as Benedick, her Beatrice is contained and measured — an imbalance that gets in the way of their chemistry.

But overshadowing everyone is Dakin Matthews as Leonato, patriach of the vineyard and father to Hero (Grace Gummer, glimpsing mother Meryl Streep’s talent). After Leonato oversees the courtship of Hero by Claudio (a stilted Ramon De Ocampo), he turns his attention to getting Benedick to realize his love for Beatrice. The plot is simple but ingenious, and the scenes are perfectly played, and easily the play’s best. Matthews is everything the role should be — by turns grandfatherly, comical, enraged and grief-stricken. His command of Shakespeare puts some of the younger performers to shame.

The second act, better than the first, opens with night watch arresting two of the play’s lesser criminals. At this point, Don John (Stephen Root), the caricatural villain who orchestrates a plot to break up Hero and Claudio, has fled, but his two accomplices, pressured to talk by a hilariously foolish David Ogden Stiers as Dogberry and his senile partner, rat him out. This being Shakespeare, a friar (Fred Sanders) comes along to help fake someone’s death, a small tragedy ensues, then multiple marriages erase all troubles. Ben Donenberg’s direction is at its worst in the group scenes, and Julie Arenal’s choreography, reminiscent of a bad wedding reception (picture hand-holding, grapevining and awkward air claps), makes matters worse. Thankfully, Trevor Norton does great work with lighting, especially in the nighttime scenes.

But in spite of the flaws, this “Much Ado” still manages to capture the buoyant spirit of the play, even if it’s only at face value. With Shakespeare, sometimes that’s the best we can hope for.

Reach Senior Arts Editor Jason Kehe here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.