Much Ado About Nothing

Shakespeare may not seem like experimental theatre, but it is when it's being performed by improvisers

A merry war: Jeremy and Caitlin Sweetlamb as Benedick and Beatrice
A merry war: Jeremy and Caitlin Sweetlamb as Benedick and Beatrice (Photo courtesy of Hideout Theatre)

Much Ado About Nothing

The Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress
Through July 20
Running time: 2 hr., 45 min.

If you like challenging, experimental theatre that pushes people out of their comfort zones, that doesn't necessarily mean that you're looking for people to writhe around naked in kiddie pools full of peanut butter, or to perform feats that put their bodies under extreme physical duress. Comfort is relative, and "challenging" and "experimental" means taking risks that may not pay off. And so the monthlong experiment at Hideout Theatre, primarily an improv venue, in performing Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth in repertory fits the bill, even though by the standards of most Shakespeare staged in most theatres, the production is fairly conventional.

But when you have performers whose expertise lies in playing loosely together and improvising their best jokes, being tied to dialogue like "Not till God makes man of some metal other than earth" for their laugh-lines is an interesting way to see what the performers are made of.

For the most part, the Hideout's company acquits itself well enough through the tumultuous romances of Benedick and Beatrice, and Hero and Claudio. The performances are uneven – some, like Mike Ferstenfeld's turns as both Borachio and Balthasar, are surprisingly natural, while others, like Andy Crouch's Antonio, seem unable ever to look past the joke that an improv troupe is doing Shakespeare – but the production hits most of the notes well. Caitlin Sweetlamb's Beatrice is charming, and her chemistry with Jeremy Sweetlamb's Benedick is winning (for reasons that may have to do with their shared last name). So much of the success of a production of Much Ado revolves around the jousting between the two, and that element is firmly in place here.

Further, there are elements of experimentation that the Hideout brings to the play that are surprisingly successful. While the actors are working from a memorized script, it's clear that much of the blocking is improvised each night. When Benedick hides to overhear Claudio, Leonato, and Don Pedro's gossip about Beatrice's affection for him, he doesn't just duck behind a plant – he climbs through the audience, over people's chairs and into the seats himself, borrowing hats and other personal items to disguise himself. For the first appearance of the villainous Don John (a hoodie-clad Katie Van Winkle, with a drawn-on mustache), Van Winkle snatches a sip of beer from an audience member to demonstrate the character's roguishness. Throughout the performance, such improvised elements bring the performance some interesting life.

Of course, being an experiment, some parts also don't work. The production is overlong, and the lack of set-dressing, proper costumes, or significant props makes the show wear thin by the end – a problem compounded by an extra 15 minutes of improv immediately following the performance, resulting in an evening that stretches to nearly three hours. Still, the fact that the experiment finds something lively in work that is so oft-performed is probably enough to deem it a success.

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Much Ado About Nothing, Austin theatre, Austin improv, Hideout Theatre, Andy Crouch, Caitlin Sweetlamb, Jeremy Sweetlamb, Mike Ferstenfeld, Katie Van Winkle

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