Much Ado About Something
Last summer, I posted about Taming of the Shrew, and this summer, Livermore Shakes is back with Much Ado About Nothing. Once again, Livermore Shakes blew my mind with the incredible production, and this ranks as my favorite production of MAAN, and one of my favorite Shakespeare plays in a long time. My dad – a self-professed Shakespeare “disliker” – said this production was the best Shakespeare play he’s ever seen.
It isn’t hard to do a great job when you start with one of Shakespeare’s simplest plays. Much Ado About Nothing is unique among Shakespeare in that there is no murder, there are no characters dressed up as other characters, and there are no deceased/disappeared characters that magically return. It is not unique in that the bawdy humor is forefront, and this production did a phenomenal job of bringing the verbal humor front and center. One of my favorite moments was when Beatrice and Benedick are sparring during the masked dance in act II scene i. Beatrice knows she is speaking to Benedick, though he doesn’t know she knows, and she uses the opportunity to thoroughly lambast him while he cannot defend himself. In this version, I saw something I loved more, perhaps, than any other presentation of any other line in Shakespeare ever. Jennifer Le Blanc, as Beatrice, pauses after the first half of his name, the better to emphasize that he is a “Bene—dick.” And Ryan Tasker‘s response as Benedick is appropriately incensed, coupled with a frustrating inability to do anything. I’m sure this isn’t a particularly creative choice, in that it is probably done in theaters and productions around the world, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it.
The best part of this production was almost certainly the staging. Kudos to Lisa A. Tromovitch for her incredible use of the stage, the audience, the vineyard. With a show such as this, where characters are constantly hiding here and there, overhearing conversations they “aren’t” supposed to here, most productions put semi-believable barriers on stage. Livermore Shakes, however, chose to use the trees surrounding the stage and the audience itself as these barriers. Watching the characters fooling each other while an actress sits in an empty seat just across the aisle or an actor using an audience member as a barrier (making her stand up and walk around with him) brings the whole experience that much closer and makes it that much funnier.
The use of physical humor was also pervasive in the show, from Beatrice hiding under her own skirt to Borachio, played by Jeremy Tribe Gallardo, stepping out of his bindings after being arrested, and then later stepping right back into them. This type of humor helps emphasize the comedic aspects of MAAN without detracting from them. A small stage combat section felt almost forced, as my mom explained, and a bit like an afterthought: “It’s as if they said ‘Hey! It’s Shakespeare, and we’re carrying swords. We have to use them.'” The stage combat may have been slightly out of place, but I didn’t mind.
Once again, Livermore Shakes blew me away with their acting talent. Within three hours, I’d totally fallen for Claudio, played by Glenn Stott. I believed that he was wronged by Hero (Kat Cordes), and then believed her when the whole story came out. And within three minutes, I despised Don John (Lucas Hatton). The youngest members of the cast brought vitality and some fabulous funny faces to the stage, and the back-and-forth between Beatrice and Benedick left absolutely nothing to be desired.
I may be biased because I know her, but Jenn Le Blanc blew me away in this production. Her accents, her physical comedy, her brilliance. I could wax romantic for a while, but I’m going to stop less Gregg (her husband, also plays Conrade in this production) comes after me. But she was merely one of many, and the sum is that I sat on the edge of my seat the entire night – even through the cold and wind – so that I wouldn’t miss a single word or expression by any of them.
The Costumes, Props, and Set
One advantage of being in a vineyard is that the setting is already beautiful. The set is no less than an original Victorian-era house, with a raised stage set in front so the actors can actually be seen. With this advantage, the era costumes and props fit right in. To be honest, this set, though beautiful, almost certainly limits their artistic choices – everything has to fit in with the house behind it. However, it is a Shakespeare company, and they seem to do a pretty good job at dealing with that.
The costumes in this show were good, but nothing to rave about. The large hoop skirts gave the actresses a bit of trouble in the wind last night, but nothing insurmountable. Similarly, the props never took away from the production. In a production this good – with such incredible staging and acting, to not be distracting is all I can ask of the costumes and sets.
Unfortunately, I have to complain about the lighting. I know that lighting for an outdoor stage is difficult, especially when the company is using tricolor LED par lights instead of traditional halogens. Combine that with the challenge of starting a production before sunset, and then lighting through the change from normal daylight to orange sunset to night, and I’m ready to give the designer a bit of slack. But the entirety of the show (once the sun turned off) was eerily blue, and the light from inside the greenroom bled onstage throughout the entire second act. The lights took away from the show for me in a couple of scenes, but for the most part I was able to ignore them. Nonetheless, the production was brilliant in spite of – not because of – the lighting.
All of this brings me to one inevitable conclusion – I LOVED IT. Like last year, Livermore Shakespeare has put up a brilliant production this year. There are still 7 performances (June 22, 27, 28, 29 & July 3, 5, and 6), with tickets for as little as $25, and then another 7 productions of Pride & Prejudice in July. I’m hoping I can find the time to go again, if only to drown in the happiness that is an inevitable result of watching those who are better than you in something amazing shoe off their talents.
If you want a nice evening of theater and wine, without going into the chaos that is San Francisco, I strongly recommend you get across the Bay and enjoy a night at Livermore Shakes!