On Wooden O’s Much Ado About Nothing

Crossposted from my original blog.

Before last night I had never set foot on Mercer Island. Oh, I had passed by and driven through Mercer Island several times but I had never stopped there for any reason… until last night’s performance of Wooden O’s Much Ado About Nothing at Luther Burbank Park.

Maybe it’s just because it was new territory, but Burbank Park seemed so BIG. A Google Maps comparison confirms the park, while half as wide in parts, is more than twice as long as Volunteer Park. It took several minutes of walking down long, hilly paths to get from SE 24th St, the west entrance to the park proper, to the amphitheater. I now see the roadway leads straight there, but the roadway is narrow and has no walking path: If you wanted to chance getting hit you could walk that way to save a couple minutes. But the amphitheater itself is a well designed space, plenty of partially shaded grassland arcing downhill towards a backdrop of three pointed wooden fixtures and plenty of backstage cover.

******

Now, a review of the play. If you’re wondering, this production of Much Ado is worth seeing if you’re at all into theatre, Shakespeare, sitting in the park and watching plays or whatever. For any criticism I give the show, it’s a decent show.

– Director Sheila Daniels went with a old Southern theme for the production, a strange and curious choice, which also facilitates the Southern music and dance interspersed throughout the show (Daniels BTW also choreographed the dance). It’s not bad: They do a fine job of creating the needed atmosphere and it certainly makes the production more fun and down to Earth, but it provides for a rough translation of the material and I don’t think it totally worked.

– The added festivities meant that, to keep the play at two hours, Daniels had to do a slash and burn of large chunks of the script: I read along in my copy of the Complete Works and noticed they skipped over large portions of dialogue. Yes, every director does some cutting, but Daniels cut a LOT of the play, multiple lines on every page and large chunks of virtually every monologue to the point where I was surprised when a character gave a whole monologue as written. I think they even cut out an entire scene. There was also a bit of jumping between scenes, though some editions do flip-flop and change parts so maybe they had a different edition… and like several troupes are doing these days they did a scene-meld, where they simultaneously perform two scenes side by side, flipping between the action in each. In this case they melded Act 2 Scene 3 and Act 3 Scene 1.

– The big thing: The entire cast’s comedic timing was terrific. They added a lot of humor to this production through sheer timing and a few action gags and it made this play so much better than it typically is.

Now, the actors, but first a preface:

These days I don’t like ripping a lead actor/actress in a local low-budget production, because no matter who you are it’s a difficult process: Learning all the lines, blocking everything, getting your dramatic choices all figured out, ironing out any and all creative differences with the director, and all the other nuances of getting ready… THEN going out there and nailing every beat every single day and night until the show closes. This is a person who has typically put a lot of effort into what you’re seeing. If this were a Hollywood or big ticket theatre star, I’d be a lot more harsh and couldn’t care less if it hurts their feelings because they’re getting paid. Save for token stipends and the fulfillment of their love for theatre, these local actors usually aren’t.

Unlike politicians, athletes and other professionals, acting isn’t like any other job where you learn concrete and practical tasks and practices, and can easily point out and criticize mistakes. Acting involves a lot of creativity and intuition. Criticizing an actor isn’t like criticizing, say, the Mayor, because the Mayor’s job for any creativity involves some fairly clear policies and procedures. Save for the lines in the script, however, the actor pretty much had to build what you’re seeing from scratch. If their choices seem wrong… then what choices are right? It’s all a product of dramatic interpretation and the problem with saying something is ‘wrong’ is that maybe the director/actor did things that way for a firm reason.

– Hans Altweis as Benedick is TERRIFIC, extremely funny through a full-bodied character. They could do this play as a one man show around this Benedick and I’d pay to see it. He alone justifies going to see this free production at the park if you get a chance. The only weakness would be his love-related interactions with Beatrice (Amy Thome), who to be honest….

– Amy Thone’s performance as Beatrice seemed more forced and less natural than the other performances. Her comedic timing was terrific. Her stage presence as the lead was perfectly suitable. But there were moments, especially early on, where I as an alleged no-talent hack sitting in the back felt I could have read parts of the script with more natural emotion than she performed them. There some weird choices on mid-sentence beats, and at times she’d growl some lines in lieu of granting them some emotional depth. Otherwise, it felt too often like she was just saying her lines in proper meter in lieu of living them… if that makes any sense. It figured that her love scenes with Benedick were the one time when Altweis’ performance seemed to fall flat: I found it hard to buy that this eccentric and lively Benedick could fall for this version of Beatrice.

Making that a bit more baffling is the fact that Altweis and Thone are married in real life. One generally assumes that a real-life married couple would have more chemistry than two random actors… but apparently not. It’s even possible the IRL relationship ironically made having to act the parts more awkward, as the scripted relationship is obviously going to be different than the IRL relationship, and channeling real life feelings into the scripted roles could be akin to trying to stuff square pegs into round holes. All this is idle speculation, sure, but this show is an evidential illustration against the idea that real life couples naturally make great on-stage couples.

– With all that said, Thone’s performance like many others picked up steam as the show went on and it got better. And again, her comedic timing made some otherwise innocuous lines VERY funny: In particular, her sudden, pointed delivery of the “Kill Claudio” line in 4-2 drew a raucous laugh from the entire crowd. I am NOT saying Thone was bad and brought this production down: Absolutely not. And if you saw this live I’m sure most would think nothing of any of this. It’s just a spot I saw where things could have improved.

– Another show-stealer was Chris Ensweiler, who doubled as Dogberry and later the Friar. Ensweiler’s dorky hick sheriff Dogberry came off a bit hokey for laughs at first, but his stately yet awkward indignance paired with his over-loud delivery brought comedy in the final two acts. And for a relatively minor part Ensweiler’s Friar had a lot of bold, sympathetic personality that added a lot to his scenes.

– Another flat-faller was Michael Place’s Claudio. Like Thone, he hit his blocking, choreography and his lines and he had strong energy. But his character seemed too flat and generic, to where his scenes of rage later in the play seemed a little out of place. His performance was a bit too much like an undergraduate thespian, very into what he was doing and very aware of what he needed to do, but too learned/formal and not natural enough. Maybe that was the actor and director’s idea of Claudio, I don’t know (these male characters ARE soldiers returning from war, not exactly the types to brim with personality). Like Thone, Place didn’t hurt the play at all. But I’m not sure how much his performance added above replacement level acting and from a major character you want more depth.

– Beyond that, I’m not going to deconstruct the play to death. Evan Whitfield as Don Pedro was buh but got better as the play progressed with some fun non-verbal character acting. Tim Smith-Stewart’s Conrade added some value, as was Heather Rash as Margaret and Sexton. Brenda Joyner’s Hero was decent, full of life and I bought it. The melodramatic bravado of David S Hogan’s Borachio put some glow on his scenes.

– Sheila Daniels’ blocking was very clever. One scene had Benedick hiding from his comrades during a discussion which led to some pretty funny slapstick moments. I mentioned the melded scenes (between separate acts, no less). But aside from the singing and dancing (and the songs weren’t too bad… nothing I’d shake a leg to or anything but decent for being part of a period play), Daniels did a fine job of adding humor (in a play with no shortage of timing-based humor) through some slapstick-ish blocking decisions. See the show to get a better idea of what I’m getting at, but it’s not too cheesy.

That’s way more than enough. None of the shortcomings are dealbreakers. Go see this entertaining play.

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