Today I found myself at Filipponi Ranch, a small winery in San Luis Obispo, California. Unbeknownst to me, this little town that I’ve called home for the past two years does have a Shakespeare festival. I suppose calling one play an entire festival is a bit much, but San Luis Obispo is a small town with a small population. One play is enough for us, thank you very much.
In any case, one of my friends saw an ad for the festival at a Starbucks. She texted me a picture, because I am everybody’s resident Shakespeare friend. I decided to give it a shot, and paid only $7.50 for the entire experience. My brief review is: it was alright. If I had paid more than $7.50, I would probably be a little salty. But I didn’t, and I laughed a few times, so it was alright.
This production of Much Ado About Nothing was set post-WWI. All of our male leads were in crisp sailor’s outfits, and the concept of them having come from war was quite fitting. But, of course, I would have preferred for the play to have been put on in period. That is a personal preference of mine, though. Regardless, I would definitely see a professional production set post-WWI, because I think it’s interesting stylistically.
The very first thing I noticed – and the thing that would bother me for the rest of the production – was how smiley Beatrice was. I love when Beatrice is played as deadpan, with a sharp, dry wit that Benedick just cannot match. But all of her jabs were said jokingly and, in a sense, it took away from the chemistry that she is supposed to have with Benedick. I know Beatrice is described as a merry lady many times, but merry doesn’t have to equal smiley and giggly. Or at least it doesn’t to me. I was a bit disappointed because I love Beatrice. She and I are so eerily similar to one another. Truly, Shakespeare accidentally wrote me into Much Ado About Nothing 417 years ago.
I kid, I kid. But my criticism still stands. Beatrice and Benedick work best when they fall into the enemies-turned-lovers trope. Ignore that trope, and almost all tension between them melts away.
Benedick, however, was an absolute charmer. He fled into the audience to eavesdrop on Don Pedro, Claudio, and Leonato and – wouldn’t you know it! – it was my chair that he chose to crouch next to. I love little details like that. The Globe puts those little touches in their plays quite often, and I think it’s very engaging. The entire baiting scene was done very well, and the audience was in hysterics. I think my favorite part was the fact that they had Leonato reading from cue cards, as if he was unable to improvise the conversation. It added a few funny pauses to an already hilarious scene.
I did have one gripe about Benedick, and it concerned the delivery of the line, “I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?” This is one of my absolute favorite lines. It’s so tender, so tender – and yet the latter half was played for laughs. For shame! And Beatrice abandoned her sobbing for laughs and smiles when she responded. But why? The confession of love in this play happens when Beatrice is at the height of vulnerability, and I truly think she should stay in that state throughout. It gives the words weight. This is a comedy, yes, but romance still has its place in a comedy.
Let’s talk about Claudio. The love between Claudio and Hero was appropriately sweet and innocent, but I was totally unconvinced that this Claudio would shame Hero in front of her wedding party. There was something missing from Claudio. I don’t know what, exactly, but it was something crucial. He had no strength, no presence. I couldn’t even imagine him as a war hero, as bad as that sounds. But something interesting did happen during the play – when Hero fainted after being accused, he tried to rush to her…only to be stopped by Don John. I thought this was an interesting choice, because it was clearly an attempt to make Claudio a bit more likeable. It didn’t work on me, because I have ridiculously strong opinions, but it was a good attempt nonetheless.
Shockingly, I loved Dogberry and Verges best in this production. Which is almost unbelievable, because I pay them very little mind usually. But the actors had excellent comedic timing, and they garnered the most applause.
I probably sound like such a stick-in-the-mud, but believe me, I did have a good time. It was nice to be out in the open air, and it was nice to chitchat with other Shakespeare lovers. I really don’t get to do that often – though I can’t tell you how often I have to deal with people’s surprise when they find out that I’m an engineer and not a literature student.
Overall, I’m glad I went. It was a good break from the monotony of my current project. It was an amateur production, no doubt, but Shakespeare is Shakespeare. I’m leaving town for good in a week and a half. How nice of Shakespeare to say goodbye, hmm?