Theater review: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ at Griffith Park's Old Zoo
Sometimes the best things in life really are free. Case in point: the Independent Shakespeare Company’s thoroughly charming revival of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Literally a romp in the park (Griffith Park’s open lawn area adjacent to the site of the original L.A. zoo, to be exact), this breeziest of Shakespearean comedies continues the ISC’s signature mix of fully professional performances and unstuffy irreverence, presented at no charge as part of the company’s mission to bring appreciation of classical theater to a broader public.
Not surprisingly to fans of previous shows in the ISC’s former venue at Barnsdall Art Park, the production delivers more than good intentions. As archetypal sharp-tongued antagonists-turned-lovebirds Beatrice and Benedick, company co-founders Melissa Chalsma and David Melville ride their characters’ romantic roller coaster with the ease and assurance that comes with longtime familiarity (their hilarious sparring makes you want to sit in on an ISC staff meeting sometime). Melville’s whimsical reading of confirmed bachelor Benedick is a departure from the familiar seasoned warrior and strategist — he’s more like a foppish refugee from a Monty Python routine — and nicely complements the nervous uncertainty of Chalsma’s Beatrice as the couple venture into unfamiliar emotional territory.
It was a canny bit of season planning to follow “Othello” with “Much Ado” — both plays are centrally concerned with the susceptibility of feelings to external manipulation. Not only are sworn enemies Benedick and Beatrice easily convinced by their friends that each harbors secret passion for the other, but the Prince (Luis Galindo, with the pompous swagger of a TV self-help guru) woos the provincial governor’s daughter Hero (spirited Mary Alton) on behalf of socially inept young Count Claudio (Erwin Tuazon). Not all the string-pulling is for laughs, however: the Prince’s evil half-brother (Sean Pritchett) and henchman (Andre Martin) just as easily turn Claudio and the Prince against Hero with venomous slander.
Claudio’s fickle abandonment of Hero remains the play’s most problematic element. Director Ron Bashford answers this challenge by emphasizing an overall paternalistic social context that imposed high expectations of conformity and proprietary; the aristocratic stature of the principals is particularly prominent here. While this reading doesn’t excuse Claudio’s reprehensible behavior, at least it helps explain it.
Special mention is also due the inventive flirtatious clowning between malaprop-spouting constable Dogberry (Danny Campbell) and his subordinate, Verges (Bernadette Sullivan, whose marvelous comic timing makes the role anything but secondary).
Note the early start time and leave some extra time to navigate the remote section of Griffith Park, and you’re in for a fun, highly accessible and unpretentious staging; even its no-frills production values become the butt of its self-deprecating humor. However, the abundant ad-libs and direct audience engagement belie an underlying respect for the text. The company employs a distinctive style of diction that preserves line endings in the verse, bucking the trend toward more prosaic delivery that glides over the breaks to bridge overlapping thoughts. Surprisingly, in the hands of capable actors this actually makes the meaning more comprehensible — who’d have guessed that Shakespeare knew what he was doing?
– Philip Brandes
“Much Ado About Nothing,” Griffith Park Old Zoo near 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles. 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ends Aug. 29. Free. (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Photos: Top: Melissa Chalsma and David Melville. Bottom: Danny Campbell, Joseph Culliton and Bernadette Sullivan). Credit: Ivy Augusta.