Earlier this year, I was worried about the fate of Shakespeare Festival/LA, now known as Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. For nearly a quarter of a century, the group presented free summer Shakespeare in a string of alfresco locales, using Equity contracts and L.A.-specific twists in the concepts, most recently at the downtown cathedral plaza as well as the South Coast Botanic Garden. During a few especially strapped summers, the company had imported productions instead of staging its own. But last summer — nothing at all.
Artistic director Ben Donenberg remained somewhat cryptic but calm when I tried to discuss what was happening. He obviously had something cooking, and apparently it was a Much Ado About Nothing featuring Helen Hunt, according to information found on the company’s web site starting about six months ago. But the details remained hazy until October.
And now Donenberg’s staging of Much Ado is up and running in fine form, with Hunt as Beatrice and with Lyle Lovett providing live musical entertainment, at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. The setting is a California vineyard, with the unusual twist that (quoting from the program notes) “Don Pedro and his men have returned from successfully defending Don Pedro’s lands against attack by his brother, Don John” — whose villainy therefore carries with it a motivating revenge that is hard to identify in many other Much Ados.
Unfortunately, after officially opening only last Sunday, it closes this Sunday. The company’s productions have a tradition of closing too soon. This might not have mattered much when they took place in expansive outdoor venues, which offered a lot more seats per performance, with wiggle room for spectators who didn’t mind sitting on blankets or standing at the side. But the Douglas has only 317 seats. So some of those who would enjoy this Much Ado but who didn’t see the first reviews or hear the word of mouth will probably find out about it too late.
At the same time, that 317-seat configuration at the Douglas has some considerable advantages over the group’s previous venues. First and foremost, as someone who on several occasions chided the Shakespeare Festival for not arranging raked seating for its outdoor productions, I’ve got to acknowledge that the seating at the Douglas is beautifully raked.
I sat in the third row from the back of the Douglas. Not only could I see everything on Douglas Rogers’ wide, two-level set, but I could hear everything, except for the occasional lines obscured by audience laughter. There is no way that I would have wanted to have been in the third row from the back at most of the company’s previous venues.
The Douglas was conceived by Center Theatre Group as a venue for new plays and youth theater. So it was bracing to see that it works well for Shakespeare, too. Not Man Apart had already established that to a certain degree with Pericles Redux in 2009, but that was such a distinctively dance-oriented production that we still needed proof that the Douglas would be hospitable to a Shakespearean style that wasn’t quite so physical. Much Ado seals the case. And it makes me look forward all the more to the similarly-scaled classical productions that we’ll see when A Noise Within opens its own new venue in Pasadena.
I recently criticized Center Theatre Group for (among other things) not scheduling any co-productions with smaller LA companies in the coming season. I’m happy to note that letting Shakespeare Center use the Douglas rent-free is a commendable step in the right direction, even if it isn’t on the level of a co-production.
In order to cover the costs of Much Ado, Shakespeare Center is breaking also with its long tradition of free Shakespeare (actually, playgoers used to be requested to bring non-perishable food for the homeless, but it wasn’t enforced). I hope the Shakespeare Center can return to that tradition next summer, but there is no indication yet on the calendar of the SCLA web site that it’s going to happen.
On the other hand, the Independent Shakespeare Company has filled that particular gap with its own professional summertime Shakespeare, presented free of charge, close to SCLA’s turf. So maybe that no longer needs to be one of SCLA’s most important missions.
For that matter, both Independent Shakespeare and A Noise Within offered their own productions of Much Ado earlier this year. Donenberg’s version is fresh enough that I never got that been-there done-that feeling, while seeing it so soon after those others. But if Shakespeare Center is going to continue to do indoor productions, it would be interesting to see it tackle less familiar plays that aren’t so readily available elsewhere
Now that I’ve seen the new SCLA, I like the company’s name change. The word “festival,” in the old name, could easily have been misinterpreted to imply that more than one production was taking place at the same time.
Of course some might feel that “Shakespeare Center” implies that the productions will take place in one central location — presumably the building that houses the headquarters of the Shakespeare Center, just west of downtown LA. As a production venue, however, that building can’t possibly touch the Douglas. So the Shakespeare Center is demonstrating that its idea of “Center” isn’t so geographically restrictive. In a metropolitan area that some have accused of having no center, that’s probably a smart move.
Much Ado About Nothing, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tonight-Saturday, 8 pm; Saturday, 2 pm; Sunday, 1 and 6:30 pm. 213-628-2772. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/MuchAdo
I recently noted my joy that most of the big theaters were running December shows that weren’t Christmas-related. Still, there is one new Christmas-specific show every year that shouldn’t be missed. It’s the Troubadour Theater Company’s annual holiday outing.
When I heard that Matt Walker’s Troubies would tackle the Nativity story itself, in conjunction with the music of Billy Joel, I licked my chops, wondering if outraged religionists might picket the Falcon. But I doubt that will happen.
The First Jo-el isn’t so much about the upper-case Nativity story as it is about another nativity tale, set in Bethlehem at the same time, involving a couple who are about to become unwed parents the old-fashioned, non-virgin way, minus the presence of herald angels singing. The young woman’s innkeeper father is resisting the couple’s desire to wed — until three wise guys/men show up with gifts, after following a star that they believe will lead them to a newborn who will reputedly be the King of the Jews. The family decides to capitalize on this case of mistaken identity — unfortunately, Mary and Joseph decide to show up at about the same time.
This turns out to be an ideal narrative structure for a little genuine sentiment as well as the usual bombardment of gags. Did we mention that the wise man bearing frankincense also bears a striking resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster? That the young woman’s sister is such a devoted employee of Hot Dog on a Stick that she continues making the lemonade at home from the inn window? That the favorite Troubies holiday character of all time, the Winter Warlock, makes not one but two disparate appearances this year?
Meanwhile, the re-written Billy Joel tunes just keep comin’ at moments both appropriate and not so much.
Among the previous comic influences that this and other Troubie shows might call to mind are Preston Sturges, Mel Brooks, Monty Python, the Three Stooges and pantos — the British holiday tradition. But such citations are unnecessary for Angelenos in the know. The Troubies are a genuine made-in-LA theatrical institution with a style that wouldn’t be easy to replicate elsewhere.
Speaking of pantos, an Americanized version of the British tradition is currently on display in Cinderella at El Portal Theatre. This Lythgoe Family Production has a few elements in common with a Troubie show — familiar story, pop music, stabs at satire, especially from the cross-dressing stepsisters — but the target audience is noticeably younger. The show is primarily for kids, culminating in the appearance of a real live pony on stage. It passes the time pleasantly enough, perhaps especially if you bring a young child, but if you want a concentrated dose of holiday laughs, stick to the Troubies.
The First Jo-el, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Fri, 8 pm; Sat 4 and 8 pm; Sun 4 and 7 pm; Tues Dec. 21, 8 pm. Dark Dec. 24-26, Dec. 31-Jan. 1. Closes Jan. 16. 818-955-8101. www.FalconTheatre.com.
Cinderella, El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri, Sun, 2 and 7 pm; Sat, 11 am, 3 and 7 pm. Closes Sunday. 818-508-4200, 866-811-4111. www.elportaltheatre.com.