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All Mirth and Much Ado About Shakespeare

Ed Rampell: Amidst much merrymaking and mirthfulness (not to say tomfoolery, mind you) costumed madrigal singers, actors who could have been arrested for impersonating a royal, dignitaries and a multitude of revelers celebrated the birthday of William Shakespeare during a July 26 outdoor ceremony at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum.

Amidst much merrymaking and mirthfulness (not to say tomfoolery, mind you) costumed madrigal singers, actors who could have been arrested for impersonating a royal, dignitaries and a multitude of revelers celebrated the birthday of William Shakespeare during a July 26 outdoor ceremony at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. And why not all this hoopla, throwing such an extravagant birthday bash for the Bard -- after all, it’s not every day someone turns 450 years old, don’tchaknow?

Much Ado About Shakespeare

The festivities at the Topanga theatrical outpost began when actress Elizabeth Tobias, garbed as Queen Elizabeth I, arrived on horseback, literally kicking off the dreamy midsummer mid-afternoon event. Her Majesty was accompanied by thespian Ted Barton -- similarly clad in period costume, portraying the very man of the hour, none other than the Stratford-upon-Avon playwright himself -- plus a retinue of WGTB actors clothed in Elizabethan apparel.

Much Ado About Shakespeare

Party photos: Ian Flanders

There was much good natured kidding by the wannabe Queen and dramatist in -- and out -- of character, kibitzing with the audience who had gathered for this most auspicious of occasions. Asking if any members of the assembled peanut gallery were familiar with his plays Mr. Shakespeare (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) expressed amusement, amazement and satisfaction that indeed this was the case. But when one wag piped up that he’d also seen Shakespeare movies, the 1564-born Bard professed bewilderment as to what that was. The answers “motion pictures,” “cinema” and finally “24 frames per second” only caused Shakespeare and Elizabeth consternation and to dismiss the scalawag for speaking such gibberish. (Thankfully, Her Majesty did not order “off with his head!”)

Considering the presence of a monarch, there had to be an official portion of this anniversary observance, which got underway with remarks by various authorities. Simon Gammell,West Coast director of the British Council, spoke, as did an L.A. County supervisor, amidst lamentation that after 40 years of public service he was being termed out of office. (Perhaps he’d prefer a form of government like the one Americans overthrew in 1776, which granted rulers titles and positions for life?) The sup then bestowed a lovely decree upon Rev. Dr. Paul EdmondsonandDr. Paul Prescottof the “Shakespeare on the Road” -- no, it’s not a version of Hamlet by Jack Kerouac, but a celebration created by the U.K.’s University of Warwick and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. (Formed in 1847 and based at Stratford-upon-Avon, this Trust purchased the home where the dramatist was born, Ann Hathaway’s cottage and other period houses, and is the world’s leading charity promoting the works, life and times of Shakespeare). The Theatricum is one of 14 Shakespeare Festivals these British Shakespeareans are visiting across North America this summer, which is being documented for a book, podcasts, radio show, etc.

The English visitors then presented WGTB’s artistic director Ellen Geer with a commemorative plaque in recognition of the Theatricum’s deep commitment to continuing Shakespeare’s legacy in America. Sculpted by artist Greg Wyatt, the lovely plaque includes a raised image of the Bard on wood from Shakespeare’s garden in Stratford-upon-Avon and was mounted behind glass in a lovely case on WGTB’s box office wall for all to admire.

Much Ado About Shakespeare

Appropriately, delicious birthday cake, as well as complimentary drinks, was provided to all at the event, which was free to attend and open to the public. “Happy Birthday to You” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” were heartily sung. And then the 450th birthday of the English language’s greatest playwright was observed in the most appropriate way: With a double feature of Shakespeare’s plays, All’s Well That Ends Well and Lear, presented in WGTB’s exquisite amphitheater.

Your humble scribe has previously reviewed those plays, but has not put quill to parchment (or pixel to screen?) yet regarding other productions which Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is presenting in repertory this summer to honor his Royal Bard-ness. This critic has not yet seen A MidsummerNight’s Dream (with Elizabeth Tobias as Quince) orEquivocation (with Ted Barton reprising -- sort of -- his role as "Shagspeare"), which opens September 5. However, your not-so-royal-reviewer has seen Much Ado About Nothing (which, BTW, was also a Shakespeare in the Park offering this summer at Manhattan), so here’s his write-up:

Much Ado About Shakespeare

Susan Angelo and Jackie Kiikvee

Much Ado has much witty prattle about the battle of the sexes. The verbal sparring between Beatrice (Susan Angelo) and Benedick Robertson Dean), with the remonstrance of each denouncing love and the opposite sex, call to mind Petruchio’s line in The Taming of the Shrew about Kate: “The lady [and gentleman!] doth protest too much.” One can imagine what fun Angelo and Dean had in conjuring up the back stories that would explain their characters’ disillusionment with romance.

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Act I proceeds with the usual plot twists and turns, and as Beatrice quips, is “all mirth and no matter.” The play features the mistaken identities that are mainstays in Shakespeare’s comedies and many an opera. The doggerel spouting Dogberry (Tim Halligan, that hooligan of humor), a lawman who misspeaks like George W. Bush on hemorrhoids -- uh, I mean steroids -- and his bumbling constables called the “Watch” (Elizabethan era Keystone Kops) steal every scene they’re in. If the comical Parolles (drolly depicted by the estimable Mark Lewis) in All’s Well That Ends Well evinced Shakespeare’s contempt for militaristic martinets and blowhards, Dogberry is another symbol of the Bard’s disdain for authority figures, which he excelled in ridiculing. (If William were alive today just imagine the “McBush” he could scribe!)

But somewhere in Act II the frothiness subsides like the tide going out to sea and the plot suddenly turns serious. The impetus may strike 21st century viewers as curious, but Shakespeare did not suffer bastards gladly. Don John (the versatile Senor Lewis), who is the “illegitimate” half brother of the Spanish prince from Aragon, Don Pedro (Jeff Wiesen), chafes at being left out in the cold by the monarchical system of rule based on lineage (perhaps not unlike abovementioned County supervisor!). To exact revenge he plots against the somewhat star crossed (although not as much as those Veronese fools for love, Romeo and Juliet!) young lovers, Claudio (Colin Simon) and Hero (Jackie Kiikvee).

Much Ado About Shakespeare

Mark Lewis and Seta Alexander

Don John is assisted in his knavery by co-conspirator Borachio, who is portrayed by the Polynesian actor Seta Alexander (aka Setareki Wainiqolo). The Fiji-born thesp has a smoldering presence onstage as he participates in the born out-of-wedlock Don John’s treachery, until, in a moving scene, Borachio mans up and recants.

In the denouement, what Don Pedro rather poetically calls right before the final curtain the “love-gods”, shall we say, conquer all. Beneath the surface we see what has really animated the animus Benedick and Beatrice appear to bear one another, and it’s heartwarming to see a middle aged couple trod the boards. In what Benedick calls “a college of wit-crackers” in Act V he concludes -- as one suspects so did his creator as he daubed quill in ink -- that “man is a giddy thing”.

This production, full of fripperies such as physical comedy and female friars, is sure to bring frequent smiles to the lips, but none in the Theatricum’s packed seats seemed to relish the shenanigans more than the comedy’s co-directors, Ellen and Willow Geer, who laughed heartily throughout the premiere. From this critic’s perch he could see the mirthful mother and daughter often laughing uproariously, causing Your Man In Topanga to muse: “What a wonderful way to earn one’s daily bread, by amusing oneself so much!”

Much Ado About Shakespeare

And that, Dear Reader, is far from much ado about nothing. For, as the immortal Bard well knew, and knew too well, matters of theatre, and of love, are truly everything, and combining the two -- well, the play’s the thing!

Happy 450th birthday Billy and many, many more! Huzzah!

Much Ado About Nothing is being performed in repertory through Oct. 4 along with Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lear plus Bill Cain’s Equivocation, which imagines a Shakespeare-like playwright writing about Guy Fawkes and England’s 1605 Gunpowder Plot, at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum: 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, California, 90290. For repertory schedule and other information call: (310)455-3723 or see: www.Theatricum.com.

Ed Rampell

 Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book(see:http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).