There are multiple tiers of theatre in Los Angeles based on not only physical size, but also money involved. Sadly, with that delineation between professional Equity houses, Equity 99-seat waiver houses, and smaller amateur houses comes distinct expectations. However, not every theatre-goer can afford the sixty-dollar prices of supposed top-flight L.A. theatre. So, the ability for the smaller theatres to share legible and enjoyable theatre—especially something as challenging as the Bard—is extraordinarily important in maintaining interest in local performance. The Porters of Hellsgate should be commended on being one of the few amateur Shakespeare companies able to deliver something more than a plane-wreck of a production. Though heavily flawed, their recent production of Much Ado About Nothing is absolutely worthy of the modest twenty-dollar admission.
The expectations of a smaller amateur Shakespeare production are fairly straightforward for a regular L.A. theatre-goer: no real set, barely serviceable lighting, costumes that suffer from a non-existent budget,directing that is often very messy, an imposed “concept” on the show and performances that run the gamut from awful to promising. The Porters' production of Much Ado fits fairly snugly into this category. However,Shakespeare has been known to work outside with nothing but actors and an audience (or so history tells us), so most of the elements take a backseat to the text. And, in that fact, lays The Porters’ success.
Little needs to be said about the design elements. The lighting (Daniel Keck) has many dark spots and strange fade times, but seems to be a result of minimal equipment more than anything. The costumes (Jessica Pasternak) are adequate for the given time period (1945 post-war Sicily). The set is more of aground-plan than anything, which functions without incident. The sound (Max Carlson and Amanda Marquardt) is appropriate, though interspersed with little control. Overall, the design is very minimal, but rarely distracting. Director Charles Pasternak works fairly well with the elements that he has, but does little more than move the bodies around the space. There are a few nice moments of physical action created in order to tell the story, and the pacing is fairly consistent. The biggest challenge unconquered is tying it all together. Pasternak seems to have a hard time with some of the larger scenes—always challenging—and also some of the dynamics of the more intimate soliloquies, which often meander through the space. Pasternak does not seem completely out of his depth, however, and tells the story with a dedicated hand.
Also, as a credit to the director, most every line spoken is understandable in context. This allows Shakespeare to do his work, entertaining the audience with consistency. There are moments missed, run over, avoided and even fought against, but the story is clear throughout. Benedick (Gus Krieger) makes bold choices, but falls consistently victim to a voice affectation and a character that simply feels out of his experience level. Beatrice (Jennifer Bronstein) has a very strong handle on the language and pentameter, but often seems to be playing one note throughout. Together, there are moments worthy of enjoyment,but little depth beyond. Hero (Taylor Fisher) is believable and simple, keeping her strain of the story together. Claudio (Brandon Gilbrech) is well-cast, but is unable to deliver in some of the more emotionally charged moments of the play. Don Pedro (Patrick J. Saxon) is possibly the most consistent in the cast,working well within the confines of each given scene. Don John (Charles Pasternak) delivers the text with extreme clarity, but occasionally comes across manufactured—leading the text rather than letting Shakespeare’s words work on him. The most flawed choice in the production is the created physicalities of Dogberry (Jack Leahy), Verges (Amanda Marquardt) and the Watch(Charles Pasternak, Tyler Olshansky). Deviating from the age-old inept security guard gag and instead creating an almost mentally impaired group of hyper-nerds takes away from the riotously funny text of the scenes and makes it virtually impossible to gauge the talent level of the actors involved (which seems fairly high). That being said, the supporting cast as well as the aforementioned leading actors are committed, filled with energy, and overall very true to the text, which makes up for many shortcomings due to inexperience and age.
In the end, it’s easier to nit-pick a production that makes strong choices and goes after the text with emotion and dedication. The Porters of Hellsgate has created a production that anyone can go see, and anyone who likes Much Ado About Nothing will be able to enjoy if their expectations are appropriate. And, in swimming the dangerous waters of Shakespeare in Los Angeles, it’s a bit of an island amidst the wreckage.