A Holiday Wedding

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

They say that at the end of Shakespeare's plays, everyone's either dead or married.

Much Ado about Nothing falls into the wedding category. And you can experience all the nuptial bliss at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City in a new production by the Los Angeles Shakespeare Center. It's a celebration of the Shakespeare company's 25th anniversary.

Full disclosure: I've taught out of Shakespeare Center's beautiful space for the last ten years and I'm an especially big fan of their "Will Power to Youth" program -- get it? Will Power?

So I really wanted to like this production...and it has a lot going for it. It's got Dakin Matthews and Tom Irwin heading up a talented cast. It's got alt-country star Lyle Lovett providing live acoustic accompaniment. It's got Artistic Director Ben Donnenberg directing. And it's set in the wine country and feels like a fun holiday wedding...there's drinking, there's dancing and good music...so what's the problem?

Like the cliché that oversimplifies Shakespeare's plays into death or marriage, this production emphasizes the cheery positive. It's played for laughs and glosses over the darker notes.

The story seems light enough: two couples, one young and willing, the other jaded and hesitant, both headed to the altar. Trouble is there's some real darkness along the way. The jaded older couple, the wits Beatrice and Benedick, are professed enemies in "a merry war" of words against each other and against the institution of marriage. The younger couple, Hero and Claudio, are dumbstruck by love, but on their wedding day things get messy. Claudio accuses Hero of being a whore and cheating on him.

But the Shakespeare Company's production is so committed to the festivities that the darkness never rings true.

This is the tricky balancing act of Shakespeare's comedies. If the tone is purely 'comic,' the weight of the story doesn't come through. For instance, Much Ado about Nothing usually comes to life in the verbal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick. The two trade witty, cutting barbs that usually steal the show. Helen Hunt, of TV and film fame, would seem a perfect bit of casting in the role of Beatrice but she chooses a tone a bit too polite and deferential so we miss the thrill of watching passionate disdain turn into passionate love.

Ironically, it's in the music of Lyle Lovett that the evening comes closest to finding the right balance. Lovett plays the bit part of a singer named Balthasar. It's an excuse for a mini concert that seems more like stunt casting than useful storytelling - but at the pivotal moment Lovett's performance becomes transcendent. In one of those tricky Shakespearean plot twists, the lover Claudio is sent to his supposedly dead bride's tomb to apologize and make amends. After Claudio recites a quick poem, Lovett launches into "Promises," a song most of us know from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. There's a gravitas, a depth, and an immediacy to Lovett's performance that the rest of the show struggles to find.

And maybe that's enough. Shakespeare Center should be celebrated for 25 years and maybe this feel good show is just the way to do it.

Much Ado About Nothing plays through the 19th at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Banner image: (L-R) Anthony Manough, Dakin Matthews, Greta Jung, Helen Hunt, Tom Irwin, Geoffrey Lower, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Stephen Root and Chris Butler in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles' production of Much Ado about Nothing at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo: Ed Krieger