Review: Much Ado About Nothing by the Independent Shakespeare Company at Griffith Park, Los Angeles

A couple of weeks back, I took my wife Lisa and son Jack to Los Angeles’ Griffith Park to catch some free outdoor theater (#ShakespeareSetFree) by the Independent Shakespeare Company, for the first of their two summer productions, Romeo and Juliet. If you were around for that one, you know I found it to be very enjoyable. I wasn’t the only one: that production will be returning after the current production, Much Ado About Nothing, runs its course at the end of this month. But I digress. This past weekend, Lisa and I headed back to the woods for a little Nothing, or Much Ado.

Much Ado About Nothing by Independent Shakespeare Company (at Los Angeles' Griffith Park)
Much Ado About Nothing by Independent Shakespeare Company (at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park); photo–Mike Ditz

Director Jeffrey Wienckowski has set Much Ado About Nothing in post-WWII Italy, and cast the company’s two founders, and husband-and-wife team of David Melville and Melissa Chalsma as the merry warriors, Benedick and Beatrice. It’s a well-crafted production, with finely tuned performances.

When I reviewed Romeo and Juliet, I noted that Chalsma, who had directed that production, had allowed her actors to interact well with the audience. Here, Wienckowski goes even further, pushing his characters into and through the audience, creating many opportunities for gags and seeming ad-libs. The purists may balk at some of these divergences from the Shakespearean text (with even Melville’s Benedick noting at one point that these “improvisations” are getting annoying, and that they should just “stick to the script”). But you all know I’m not a purist. I found these shatterings of the fourth-wall (they go well beyond just breaking it) to be fun and very knowing (especially when an “usher” reprimands Beatrice for sitting in a chair deemed too tall for the audience).

Many of the performances are solid: Erwin Tuazon’s Claudio is the clod-like dunce he needs to be, Napoleon Tavale swaggers as Don Pedro, and Richard Azurdia’s Borachio is wonderfully over-the-top. Danny Brown does the best she can with the thankless role of Hero, and Danny Campbell is a very good Leonato.

They’ve made some interesting choices with William Elsman’s Don John. When he first appears, he’s walking with crutches, and my first thought was, “ah, this is how they’re explaining his villainy, as some kind of bitterness over his war wounds or as a possible case of PTSD.” But when we see him alone with his followers, he tosses the crutches aside. It’s all a ruse. He’s just a plain-dealing villain. A total jerk, and it works to great effect.

Though their story is really the B-plot, Beatrice and Benedick are the reason why people come to the play, and Chalsma and Melville do not disappoint. Beatrice here feels like a natural evolution from Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, but maybe worn down to remove her violence. I’ve never seen Benedick portrayed as such a huge buffoon as Melville does here. And, honestly, it shouldn’t work. Benedick needs to be Beatrice’s equal. But damned if Melville doesn’t pull it off. Benedick may be a buffoon, but as his reaction to Beatrice after the wedding (which, as in all productions, is just too cruel to be believed) proves, he’s got a good soul. He’s a good guy. It’s this goodness that wins us and Beatrice.

What I particularly liked was how the production really took into account one of the meanings of the title. Last year, when we read the play, I made great mention of the fact that in Shakespeare’s day, “Nothing” had multiple meanings and uses, not the least of which was its status as a homophone for “noting” or listening. Wienckowski and his actors really hammer home the point of the miscommunication and incorrect hearing or misinterpreted seeing of events.

It’s not a perfect production. Some actors are not up to the level of the leads, and not all of the sight gags or motifs pay off. There are also some sequences where the blocking seems simultaneously too manic and too well-rehearsed. But these are quibbles.

I said when reviewing Romeo and Juliet last month to try to get there early because of the crowds. Lisa and I did get there earlier on Saturday… but it was still crowded. At the end of the performance, it was announced that the night’s audience was over 2000 strong. That’s a lot of people… word must be getting out. The Independent Shakespeare Company has done it again. It’s another great production, but there’s not much time left… only two more weekends, with the Much Ado run ending on August 25, after which Romeo and Juliet returns for one last weekend at the beginning of September.

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