Leon Worden

SC Repertory makes much ado about authenticity

By Leon Worden
Friday, July 24, 1998

he open-air adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing" being staged this month and next by the Santa Clarita Repertory Theatre is good comedy, as relevant in meaning and authentic in rendering now as it must have been 400 years ago when William Shakespeare wrote it.

A lighter-than-normal crowd of 75 souls braved the heat of a midsummer night Saturday to see 10 professional, conservatory-trained actors double up in 18 different roles on a sparsely-propped stage. That's essentially how Shakespeare's own troupe performed, said David Ian Stears, the Rep's producing artistic director.

"Shakespeare's company never had more than 13 or 14 actors, even for the big productions," Stears said. "Shakespeare was performed on an empty stage with three entrances and an 'above,' or a balcony. And of course, they were all men."

Santa Clarita audiences won't see men play women's roles in the Rep's "Shakespeare in the Park" series, although the leading ladies, Sienna Mauve and Dawn Zummo, play second roles as watchmen.

The company continually experiments with different concepts and adds and subtracts lines as necessary to make the presentation more comprehensible to the public, as would have been done in Shakespeare's day, Stears said.

There were no fewer than five changes between last Friday's opening-night performance in Sand Canyon and Saturday's performance in Valencia Glen Park. On Friday (but not Saturday), director Jeffrey Libby, playing Leonato, carried the script on stage throughout the performance to demonstrate that once upon a time, the director and his prompt book were actually part of the show.

"Historically, troupes would perform the full canon of Shakespeare's works, so they wouldn't necessarily have a full grip on each one," Libby explained. "When they were originally produced, the plays were still being written and rewritten. The author would make notes and hand the cast a re-write."

"Much Ado" is a light-hearted farce that juxtaposes some powerful human emotions — love and lust, honor and betrayal — teaching, in the words of the protagonist, that "man is a giddy thing," so preoccupied with appearance and protocol that he can't easily distinguish what's truly important.

Based solely on her looks, the young count Claudio (Eric Jester) falls in lust with the fair Hero (Zummo) and, mistaking this for love, sets about to marry her. His determination grows all the stronger when he learns that she is the sole heir to her father's riches.

Meanwhile, Claudio's associate Benedick, masterfully portrayed by Dean Lemont (the bartender in the Fox sitcom, "Party of Five"), has hitherto engaged only in superficial relationships, foreswearing marriage. "Until all graces come in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace," he says.

All the graces do indeed come in Beatrice (Mauve), but he doesn't see it. Benedick and Beatrice have a history of hating each other and match wit with wit, barb with barb, confusing sarcasm with disdain. Yet they have so much in common that they belong together. Only when each is tricked into believing the other harbors secret affections do they acknowledge their love.

The opposite fate unfolds for Claudio, tricked into believing Hero has been unfaithful. He hasn't bothered to get to know her intimately enough to trust her protestations of innocence and he calls off the wedding, publicly humiliating her. It takes a simpleton, a bungling constable — caricatured here through Corby Gallegos's exaggerated countenance and some Mr. Toad-ish costuming by Diana Lewis and Itsaso Petricorena — to reveal the truth of Hero's virtue, something the pretentious lords, in their false pride and misplaced honor, cannot discover on their own.

"Shakespeare adapts well to different political times," said Stears, who plays Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon.

There is a definite timelessness to the idea of petty, pompous people who dwell on outward appearances, making much ado about nothing and failing to recognize the truth.

"Much Ado" can be seen tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. at Newhall Park, Aug. 1 at Santa Clarita Park and Aug.8 at Valencia Glen Park. Admission is free.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's special sections editor.
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