The Aquila Theatre Company's Much Ado About Nothing, La Jolla Playhouse's season closer at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, features a 1968 Mini Cooper as virtually its only major set piece. It's just about the cutest car in the history of the universe, too, with its bright red and white exterior and the forlornness on its steely face-perfect for, say, a script with British spy send-ups like The Avengers and The Pink Panther as its backdrop.
Maybe the peeps at Aquila will actually write that play someday. For now, they've opted to pretend that Much Ado is somehow compatible with '60s espionage comedy and melodrama. And as long as they keep it up, they ensure that that adorable little Mini is the only star of the show.
Once again, a major theater group has transported a Shakespeare entry through time. And once again, the concept falls flat on its Elizabethan arse. Yeah, the story's full of plot twists and turns and skullduggery and dark humor and a feigned death and funny guys and girls jockeying for position in matters romantic-but never does this script's tone or intent evoke the modern corporate climate the way Aquila would have us believe. Predictably, lovers Beatrice (Jessica Boevers) and Benedick (Anthony Cochrane) are decked out in form-fitting black, and that's fine for the brassy .007 entries of 40 years ago. How director Robert Richmond ties their ilk to Shakespearean gentility is a primordial mystery, and it touches on every single scene in the show.
Aquila, New York University's teaching troupe, was at the Playhouse in 2003 with a much better Comedy of Errors. That clever piece touched on Shakespearean content without expressly defining a period. Here, the group illustrates something that's been stated over and over in this column and doubtless will be again: You simply can't ever expect to successfully set Shakespeare in a specific time and place. It doesn't effing work! The deceptively austere stories, the broad and universal characters: Shakespeare's stuff fiercely defies cultural parallel, even within his own era-and this entry draws a lame comparison to boot. Setting the fluffy Much Ado against all that '60s brazenness is like casting a family of newborn cats in a snuff film. The outlook for the animals isn't all that spectacular.
That's what's so cool to this point about San Diego's Poor Players Theatre Company. The Shakespeare-intensive group has mastered the art of suggestion surrounding time and place and retains the playwright's values in the process (although it stumbled with last year's The Merchant of Venice). But like The Old Globe Theatre's Comedy of Errors from 2005, Sledgehammer Theatre's Macbeth before it and the Globe's Julius Caesar before the both of 'em, this Much Ado wants to cram its players and setting down our throats. Against this classic piece of reflective Shakespeare, the aftertaste is just the other side of rude.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Jan. 20. Much Ado About Nothing runs through Feb. 19 at La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. $36-$52. 858-550-1010.
Pretty good thing
Rachael Van Wormer is so damn great in Beautiful Thing that she threatens to carry the show, and maybe that's not always such a beautiful thing after all.
This Diversionary Theatre production depends a little too much on writer Jonathan Harvey's character outlines and not enough on the story's progression for its credibility-but his skanky Leah, a volatile, inveterate Mama Cass wannabe, is a hell of a role, and Van Wormer nails every seam of it. Things bog down in the scenes that mark teenagers Jamie (Matt Barrs) and Ste (Joseph Panwitz) as gay lovers. They're underdeveloped, and that trait touches on the top-heavy climax, with which Van Wormer runs away.
Still, this is a thoughtful piece about love without borders, and it's got director Rosina Reynolds' introspection all over it. If you see it, you'll witness some pretty good turns, and you'll all but wallow in Van Wormer's amazing energy.Beautiful Thing runs through Feb. 5 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights. $23-$27. 619-220-0097.