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Helen Hunt and Lyle Lovett Do Much Ado

Hunt and Irwin, aged like fine wine
PHOTO BY ED KRIEGER

For what appear to be primarily decorative reasons, director Ben Donenberg sets Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing on a vineyard in Messina, Calif., in a time once upon.

These decisions alone open up all kinds of possibilities, such as set designer Douglas Rogers' choice to create a courtly ranchero-fantasia set on the broad stage of the Kirk Douglas Theatre, where the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles — otherwise known as Shakespeare Festival/L.A. — is holding court with this production through Sunday, Dec. 19.

Bricks form the base for wooden lattice webbing, shrouded by buckets of rosebushes and wine barrels. It's staggeringly beautiful, in a Disney kind of way, for an animated feature centered on the San Antonio Winery. All of this nestles beneath festive lights suspended along overhanging wires. For the second half, the roses are replaced by jasmine and grapevines, from which dangles a prodigious bounty of fruit.

"I love you, California, you're the greatest state of all/I love you in the winter, summer, spring and in the fall."

This song is not sung by the house band. Let's just say it's implied. The band consists of musical director Brian Joseph, bassist Fred Sanders, violinist Sarah Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins, all crooning melancholy country ditties (by Brian Joseph, Wendy Waldman, Dave Frischberg and Lyle Lovett), and sweetly headlined by Lovett, also on guitar.

Didn't see any happy natives. Or unhappy natives. Or any natives at all. No hint of the antecedents of César Chávez, representing the men and women and children who would have harvested those grapes in less-than-utopian circumstances. This is a California fairy tale unencumbered by even the suggestion of murkiness in California's actual history.

And this seems something of a lost opportunity, because Shakespeare's play is about a paradise that almost slips away, because the villain in residence, Don John (Stephen Root), tried and failed to grab the estate from his brother, Don Pedro (Geoffrey Lower), leaving John sufficiently bitter to screw up a marriage of young lovers out of spite. It all turns out OK because this is a comedy.

Yet if that comedy of twisted obstructionism doesn't resemble California history, or local politics, or the national political conundrum circa 2010, I don't know what does. This wouldn't be an issue were it not for the Spanish-Mexican-Colonial suggestions in Holly Poe Durbin's leathery costumes. Don Pedro and his arriving band of merry men, including Claudio (Ramon De Ocampo) and Benedick (Tom Irwin), show up in knee-high jodhpurs. A masked ball has the men attired with those same boots and in Spanish-Mexican–style bow ties and capes. To escape the darker implications of all that, in California, for the sake of decoration and whimsy renders the play as though it really is much ado about nothing. And that's just not so.

So much for what the production isn't. Now on to what it is: a fantasia well-enough staged and well-enough rendered that fundamental essences of human folly emerge as though in a mirror. This would be a fun-house mirror with the distortions of fancy dress in some fantastical era.

The story is that of two sets of lovers, one young and one older. Upon his return to Messina, young Claudio hasn't seen the only daughter, Hero (Grace Gummer), of landowner Leonato (Dakin Matthews) for some time, and the callow youth is instantly smitten with her. Meanwhile, the older Benedick resumes a comedically bitter and long-running romantic feud with Leonato's niece, Beatrice (Helen Hunt) — one determined to remain a bachelor, the other a spinster.

The ostensibly wiser, older couple — so magnetically attracted yet each so willfully repelling the other — has a kind of adolescent prickliness that rings as true as the ages.

This makes more sense on the page than on the stage. Irwin's Benedick has such a robust and charismatic swagger, it's hard to understand what he sees in Hunt's comparatively drab Beatrice. Her intelligence is there, minus a sparkle that would spin their feud into a tempest.

Meanwhile, Don John, just to be nasty, plays on Claudio's jealousy with the enacted ruse of Hero's infidelity — a charge spitefully brought by Claudio against his beloved at their wedding.

This harrowing injustice of this climactic scene, with its echoes of Othello, depicts about as miserable a nuptial as was ever conceived. The performances, particularly De Ocampo's Claudio and Gummer's Hero, are so impassioned and vitriolic, in both offense and response — supplemented by Hero's dad lashing out against his only child with similar rash ferocity — they all demonstrate exactly how close this comedy teeters on the brink of tragedy. That the scene should contain such power is a testament also to Donenberg's skill in shaping the text so that it rises to such an emotional pitch, amidst all the diversionary atmosphere.

(It would be interesting to see this play performed as a tragedy, the way Comédie Française did with Tartuffe.)

Up to this point, it's been largely frivolity, fully supported by Shakespeare's scathing, witty repartee, which the ensemble delivers with equal doses of heft and sarcasm.

This makes the choice of irony-laden melancholy music a particularly deft juxtaposition that slathers on emotive texture like linseed oil on a raw wooden cabinet.

There's much to admire in this ornate production, yet I was more smitten with a version of the same play over the summer in Griffith Park, in the open air, and also with music, presented by Independent Shakespeare Company: no stars, scant decoration and no shift of locale, as at the Douglas, suggesting some other place neither defined historically nor ill-defined.

Over at Griffith Park, there were costumes, hinting at Messina, Italy, of the 1500s rather than Messina, Calif., in some zone straddling the 19th and 21st centuries.

ISC's production possessed a combination of scrappiness and spontaneity, as though some of the incidental characters were charging down to some 20-yard line of a football field, diving to catch a pass — a line, an insult, a quip — thrown from midfield. When the line was received, it felt like a kind of miracle. Repartee by our Troubadour Theater Company has this same quality, which is what happens when an ensemble gets to play together for a long time.

The exchanges here, often laced with charm and humor, are comparatively mannered, with excellent actors who know the play better than they know each other, or so it appears. The charm has been sculpted in rehearsal rather than simply springing out from experience. The one exception is when the musicians interplay with the actors, in moments that are especially lovely.

The issue isn't some mandate to artificially reinterpret the play but to fulfill the promise of a shift in locale, and then to show the play as though it's unfolding for the very first time.

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by THE SHAKESPEARE CENTER OF LOS ANGELES | KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. | Through Dec. 19 | (213) 628-2772

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