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Lyle Lovett adds a twang of bluegrass to Shakespeare with Helen Hunt along for the ride

December 8, 2010 | 10:10 am

Hunt The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ latest production, “Much Ado About Nothing,” is at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre for a brief run (now in previews and running through Dec. 19). It’s the first time the company, which has specialized for 25 years in quirky outdoor productions — say, “Twelfth Night” on the beach — has worked in such an established space.
Not that they’re going all starchy and traditional on us just because there’s a roof over their heads. Set in a California winery and starring Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin as lovers-in-denial Beatrice and Benedick and featuring bluegrass music, this is not your college professor’s “Much Ado.”

Lyle Director Ben Donenberg said Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, which he founded in 1985, tries to close the gap between today’s audiences and Shakespeare’s. Through informal polls over the years (“We stopped people on their way out and asked when they began to understand what was going on”)  he determined that it takes 10 to 15 minutes for the average L.A. ear to attune itself to Elizabethan English. 
“That’s why the beginnings of these plays are so important, because you want people to feel welcome early,” he said.
When the audience filters in to the Kirk Douglas, the band is already onstage, playing tunes by Lyle Lovett. Starting Friday, Lovett himself will be there along with them. He has worked with Donenberg in the past at the company's benefit reading, hosted by Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks, and enjoyed the experience.
“Aside from plays we all read in high school and the movies I’ve seen,” he said, “my only experience with Shakespeare has been with Ben. Ben helps you to not be afraid, and he helps the audience to not be afraid.
“Ben kind of presents Shakespeare as a good ol' boy."

Click here to read about Lovett, Hunt and the play, and here to see photos of the production.

-- Margaret Gray

Photo (top): Helen Hunt and Ben Donenberg. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

Photo (bottom): Lyle Lovett. Credit: James Crisp / Associated Press