Much Ado About Nothing
The Present Company's debut with an open-air staging of the Bard's comedy is magical
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., April 1, 2011
Much Ado About Nothing
Rain Lily Farm, 914 Shady Ln.
Through April 9
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.
I don't know who owns Rain Lily Farm, which you can find on Shady Lane in East Austin, just off Airport Boulevard. But somehow the Present Company co-artistic directors Stephanie Carll, Lindsay Doleshal, Omid Ghorashi, and Raymond Wortel persuaded the farm's owners to allow them to present this, their inaugural production, on the premises. Here's hoping the owners continue to do so, because this combination of company, material, and venue proved a very special arrangement.
Shakespeare wrote his plays for performance in an open-air space, and I've always found that his plays work best when performed out of doors. The farm provides about as perfect a setting for Bardic work as you could wish. The audience sits on a large lawn; the performance space is basically the other half of the lawn. Bales of hay help delineate the space, and some well-placed trees provide cover. There's a chicken coop with a rooster and turkey keeping the peace, trucks parked at the back of the lawn, gardens and a greenhouse not too far off, and a lot of blue Texas sky, with the setting sun backlighting the whole and strings of electric lights providing decoration and illumination after the sun sets.
A truly inspiring space for a Shakespeare play, especially a comedy. But while the farm is a special setting, what is most surprising, and gratifying, is the group of actors that director Doleshal has assembled. More than once I've seen a new company take on a Shakespeare play and be overwhelmed by it – the language is archaic and difficult, the stories often requiring a depth of understanding, technical expertise, and passionate commitment that you don't find in many actors, especially in those who act for nothing more than love of the art. Fortunately for us, Doleshal, either through luck or coaching or, most likely, a combination of the two, has found a cast that consistently brings enough vocal energy to get over the ambient neighborhood noise, with no amplification and nothing at their backs to help them other than that big sky. More importantly, the actors understand who they are and how they function in Shakespeare's story, and each fulfills his or her role admirably. Doleshal uses the whole farm as the stage. The characters mingle with the audience and one another before the play begins and then, as they tell the story, enter from every conceivable angle – from behind trees, over bales of hay, from way back on the property. Many of the actors play instruments, and guitarist Gary Shackelford provides a plethora of preshow music and accompaniment throughout. Notably, alcohol is highly visible, both on the stage and off, and I particularly appreciated this, as alcohol was very much a part of the original performances of these plays. Just one more charge in a charmingly charged atmosphere.
The perfect setting. A committed, passionate, knowledgeable, engaging group of performers. A play that will live until plays no longer do. An impressive debut, with the promise of more. It's magical, and if you get lucky enough to see some lightning flash in the sky as Beatrice and Benedick do battle on the farm, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.