Tuesday, January 31, 2006

It's Shakespeare, baby, yeah!

First things first: the Oscar nominations are here. This news used to feel a bit like Christmas morning, and I guess it still does, now that I don't celebrate the holidays the same way. No real comment, but I've noticed that boring nominations yield exciting winners, while exciting nominations yield boring winners. Use your own judgment to determine which is the case this year.

In San Diego last weekend I saw two shows that I considered companion pieces. The first was a production of Much Ado About Nothing set in the swinging 1960s. The second was Will and I, a one-man show about the Bard by Michael York, or Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers movies.

Friday night brought me to the La Jolla Playhouse, paying $15 for a last-minute rush ticket (sixth row center) that was far better than the $52 others paid for generally poorer seats. This production of the show (by the Aquila Theatre Company) called for a large square stage, bare with the exception of a British flag covering the wall and a 1968 Mini Cooper that was rolled around for various scenes.

While the dialogue was unchanged from the text (made familiar by Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film), the look of the play strayed. The men wore bowlers and sharp gray business suits, some with brightly colored shirts and ties. The women were in skintight black leather, like Emma Peel in The Avengers. Music resembled The Saint, and "Hey Nonny Nonny" became a vamped-up musical number in the style of Burt Bacharach.

The actual business of the men was unclear. As in the play, Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio, Don John, and Borachio have arrived from war, but my best guess is that they were doing spy work, or special ops. Don John carries an umbrella with a sword inside. Borachio appears in a short but dressy raincoat. As the governor of Messina, Leonato wears a black glove with a button on it to help move his (apparently mechanical) hand. Suitcases are exchanged, bombs are defused, handguns are wielded. Friar Francis hangs among the lights and descends a rope to make his entrance. It's all very strange and amusing.

The comedy only works if the actors playing Benedick and Beatrice can dominate their own scenes, but can also have good chemistry together. Here they succeed on both counts. This Beatrice was very young, but still effective because her portrayer channeled older actresses, holding her mouth like Ellen Barkin and delivering her lines like Priscilla Barnes. (Yes, I notice these things.)

It's great fun. I notice that, through the end of April, the Aquila Theatre has touring productions of Hamlet and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, mostly along the East Coast. I have no idea if their adaptations are similarly inspired, but performance dates and locations are here. If you have the means...


K-Lyn said...

Looks like a lot of fun. Wish I could have seen it.

Neel Mehta said...

I kept a program. I can mail it to you if you like. (The Aquila Theatre has done this show before, and I have a feeling they'll do it again.)

Claudio was a trip. He was no Robert Sean Leonard, mind you, but he delivered on the comic relief. The guy who played him, John Lavelle, can be seen here. In the play he sort of reminded you of a hyper Ron Livingston.

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