Luke: Well, you got to find your own way back. You’re not using the Grimaldi jet.
Reid: Big shock. You didn’t get what you wanted from me. Now you’re taking your toys, and you’re going home. Have a nice life.
— Luke and Reid, January 22, 2010

Eric Sheffer Stevens in Much Ado About Nothing

ETA, 7 Feb 2011: Okay, this is REALLY out of place on this blog, but I’ve gotten several hits from people searching for information on “Much Ado About Nothing” and small casts, so I take it there is a dearth of information on that subject on the internet! So, I’ve added an addendum at the bottom of this post with the complete 10-member cast list along with the roles they played.

Hi, everyone,

Okay, this is a little out of place, but given how lame today’s episode was overall, and how little there is to say about it, I thought I would finally finish this off and get it posted. I meant to finish it sooner when memories were still fresh, but too many other things got in the way.

As you may have heard, I was lucky enough to be join the fan group (hailing from as far away as Texas, Seattle, and Germany) who attended the Vermont Shakespeare Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing starring Eric and Jenny Sheffer Stevens during the weekend of August 13-15.

My brief thoughts? It was by FAR the most enjoyable Shakespeare I have ever seen – and that’s not “just because” Eric was in it. I say this as “not-a-big-Shakespeare-fan” whose last bard production was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Stratford production of The Tempest with Patrick Stewart! Indeed, this “small-town” production was arguably one of the top 5-10 live performance experiences I can remember.

For those who are wondering, the production will NOT be available for purchase on DVD due to contractual restrictions with the actors. Similarly, photos are limited to publicity shots and bootlegged photos as we were explicitly asked not to take photos or video during the show.

What follows is my layperson’s review (remember, I was a math major!). And also, I would be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for Vermont Shakespeare Company.

If you didn’t get enough of an endorphin high from donating to Doctors Without Borders, and you want to show even more appreciation for Eric Sheffer Stevens’s work as Dr Reid Oliver, in lieu of fan mail or personal gifts, you can consider adding Vermont Shakespeare Company to your list of worthy causes. Let me make this clear: This is ME, LOVELURE, making the suggestion, NOT Eric.

http://www.vermontshakespeare.org/donate.html 

We know that this is a company near and dear to his heart and he appreciates donations to them, but he is definitely NOT out there using his celebrity to guilt people nor  does the humble guy have any expectation of people to make donations. However, I have personal ties to VT and I really thought the production was fabulous, so if I can help make a small difference to ensure they thrive (and do another show next year, where they might invite a certain New York actor to perform…), then I am going to use this wonderful digital soap box to do so.

You can leave a personal message on the PayPal donation page if you are interested.

As this is a Luke and Reid blog, not an Eric blog, I will not post my fangrrling comments here. For those comments (as well as photos from many members of the group) please visit the forum at EricShefferStevens.com; others have also posted there, as well as on LRO and the Reid Oliver Facebook page (and possibly LiveJournal, as  I know at least one of the mods was there).

To start with, the setting was perfect – a very remote state park on an island in Lake Champlain straddling the New York/Vermont border. The island is narrow enough so I think you can see from side to side at various points, with lots of idyllic red barns, corn fields, and brown cows. Oh yes, and the weather was perfect – roughly 75 degrees and not buggy at all (a real worry for me, a bug magnet).

The performance space itself was very intimate, with only 6-7 rows or so of bleachers, running from one side of the stage to the other, so there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. With a backdrop of trees serving as both curtains and wings, most of the performance took place just on the grassy/woodsy floor, with two large platforms installed, tree-house style, amid two small stands of trees. The minimalist stage was cleverly used as its inability to conceal the various characters in hiding was played up for great comic effect.

The show opened with a montage featuring Beatrice and Hero at home with their families, and a fencing scene with clever Benedick repeatedly besting young Claudio. At one point, Benedick plants a big juicy kiss on Claudio, distracting him to defeat.

With this opening, fans were able to see as much or as little Reid in Eric’s portrayal of the snarky and self-avowed bachelor Benedick as they wanted. Though Benedick shares some of Reid’s lack of interest in engaging with people (and stumbles over the word “marriage”), it is clear he is basically a lovable curmudgeon, who demonstrates occasional playfulness, and who has deep ties to and enjoys great loyalty from/to his colleagues.

Some felt they saw bits of Reid everywhere. Personally, I went into it trying to erase my mind of Reid and was very pleased to see Benedick as a distinct character who was witty, cocky, endearing, and entertaining in his own right. If I wasn’t convinced by Eric’s Law and Order: Criminal Intent appearance that he will completely inhabit whatever role he is given, this was certainly compelling.

On top of showing off his familiar dramatic chops and comedic timing, Eric was also able to show off his great talent physical comedy, with highlights including some great scenes with a mock bird (threatening to reveal him in hiding), some serious face-pulling (a la Lucille Ball), an aborted tightrope walk (well, tight-pole walk), and a swashbuckling swing on a rope (which ended in a drop from a height of five or six feet in the air), followed by two pretty decent cartwheels (better than my 10-year-old’s).

Matching Benedick barb for barb was Eric’s wife Jenny who was equally fantastic as Beatrice, a feminist’s heroine if ever there were one. Beatrice and Benedick’s rapid-fire banter was crisp and biting, with the two equally matched each other, but were no match for their friends who conspired to make them fall in love.

I’m all over strong women, and Jenny’s Beatrice was a force to be reckoned with – confident, cavalier, and unapologetically single, Beatrice’s scorn of all things male (and of Eric’s Benedick) was apparent. However, Jenny was also able to convey Beatrice’s fierce loyalty to beloved, wronged cousin Hero, and her underlying unwillingness to be branded as hard-hearted. Beatrice’s scenes paralleled Benedick’s, with Jenny pulling off the physical humor in her own bewildered eavesdropping scene with great aplomb.

The creative staff did a great job of utilizing a small ensemble cast, with most cast members (including Eric) playing dual roles. So in a surprising bonus, not only did we see Eric as leading man Benedick but also as one of the misfit Watchmen who play a key role in spoiling the wrong doers and setting the star-crossed lovers Hero and Claudio back on their path towards a happy ending.

The Watchmen, led by the scene stealing Sheffield Chastain, a classmate of Eric and Jenny’s at Alabama Shakespeare Festival as Dogberry, were a troop of wildly garbed and variously dim characters including one with an odd fondness for a stale fish, and Eric as a surfer dude with traces of peacenik. Wearing a billowy poet-type shirt, greenish trousers with an enormous horseshoe buckle, a cap with dual earflaps, and carrying an oversized wooden spoon and an undersized net, on occasion, Eric managed to distract if not mesmerize without speaking a word simply by virtue of his posture, facial expressions, and “incidental” movements.

Sheffield’s Dogberry was brilliantly outrageous, using a deep southern drawl with great effect. Dogberry’s penchant for mixing up dialogue would make George W proud (“secondarily they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things…”). On Friday evening, he entered from the top of the bleachers, stepping in between several audience members, and pausing in front of one member of our group to deliver a provocative “well, hello there.” We wondered if he would be able to replicate this on Saturday with its packed crowd (and limited walking-space amidst the bleachers), but Sheffield managed his precarious entrance with ease. Indeed, Dogberry’s scenes elicited many of the most enthusiastic rounds of applause from Saturday’s audience. I don’t believe Dogberry and Benedick shared any scenes (though in various roles both Sheffield and Eric did), but if they did, it would have been a good competition to see who would capture the most attention.

Jennifer Burry and Kyle Smith were both sincere and attractive in the roles of young lovers Hero and Claudio, and Collin Smith featured brightly in many scenes as the tone-deaf balladeer Balthasar. The race-blind cast was rounded out by Mark Roberts, Eugene Douglas, Parrish Hurley, and Sophia LaPaglia. There was not a weak link among the cast as each player held his or her own in the strong ensemble work.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this show was its ability to appeal to a very broad spectrum of audience. There was plenty of physical humor and decipherable puns to appeal to the most Shakespeare-shy in the audience. During the Saturday evening show, a girl of about 10 sat in front of us (her verdict: “pretty good, but I don’t get all the jokes”). And indeed, most of the play could be appreciated by the youngest in the audience, with the possible exception of (or perhaps particularly because of) Dogberry’s peculiar affection for pointing out his being branded an ASS!

As I said above, I am “not a big Shakespeare fan.”  I was a math major, so definitely NOT intimately familiar with Shakespeare’s works. This was one play that I had not previously read. Though I intended to read a plot synopsis in advance, I ended up not having time. Nevertheless, I had no problem understanding both the story, and “getting” the innumerable puns and quips. (Aside: I highly recommend Andrew Matthews and Tony Ross’s Shakespeare for children series. Each volume – there are about a dozen now – captures the plot in simple but enjoyable language with illustrations. My then 7-year-old read one before being dragged to see Midsummer Night’s Dream and subsequently has, by her own volition, read all the others in the collection that we own – multiple times. DH and I also found it helpful in understanding the Tempest as well.)

In particular, for the first time, I actually got all of the bawdy Shakespearean humor so many high school teachers and college professors tried to beat into my head. I had been told so many times that “if it’s long and straight, it’s phallic,” but somehow the allusions always struck me as forced and clinical when analyzed in classes. In this production, the double entendres and not-so-subtle innuendo really came to life, and were actually funny! For once, I felt like one of the “in crowd” and got the jokes without being bludgeoned over the head with them.

Part of this I attribute to the “voicing” of the actors (I have no idea what the correct theatrical term is, so I’m making one up here). Unlike at Royal Shakespeare, where the actors all “sounded Shakespearean” the actors in VSC’s Much Ado for the most part sounded like “normal people.” While the language was flowery, the diction was not, and the projection was excellent. So it was easy to understand the nuances and expression. With the exception of a rash of airplanes overhead on Saturday evening, the acoustics were surprisingly good and even the quietest stage whisper was easily heard.

In the introduction to the play, executive director John Nagle (another Alabama Shakespeare Festival classmate of Eric and Jenny’s) and artistic director Jena Necrason indicated that they were presenting an “edit” of the play. I initially assumed this was part of why the play was so understandable. However, I finally got around to reviewing the original text, and even now, two weeks after the production, I am amazed at how much of the verbatim dialogue is familiar.

Although my memory is clearly fuzzy, it seems pretty clear that the main edits were to combine the roles of lady Hero’s two attendants, Ursula and Margaret, to allow the play to be produced with its small cast. Even today, though, I can recognize entire passages of text and dialogues from the play, and can happily can hear the actors’ voices saying them, bringing the lines to life.

Overall, the audience was very enthusiastic, with the ESS fan contingent’s enthusiasm restrained to cheering for the show and its entire cast (no overt fangrrling – not even from the men in our group). The Saturday evening show received a well-deserved standing ovation, initiated as much by the local Vermont crowd as by us out-of-town interlopers.

Following the Friday show, we were treated to a meet-and-greet with the cast at a local bar. Although initially a bit awkward, with production crew and fans separately grouped like at a junior high school dance, the ice was soon broken.

Many (most?) of the cast and creative staff are New Yorkers, so preliminary rehearsals took place in studio space in New York City before the entire company drove north (via ferry, apparently) for final staging. Among other things, company members shared items which were improvised (including much of the above-noted bird scene, and the swashbuckling swing) either during that performance or shortly before. It gave us all a bit of insight into the craft, which was greatly appreciated.

Since returning home, I’ve done a little Googling and found that I’m not alone in my favorable impressions. The Burlington Free Press wrote: “It might be hard to imagine that The Bard could be- gulp! – fun, let alone silly fun. The Vermont Shakespeare Company demonstrates that in full force.”

“For our first three seasons, we chose his most popular, well-known comedies,” said Artistic Director Jena Necrason in the Vermont paper, Seven Days.” They are just naturally accessible to an audience,” including young people. The goal was to get as many people as possible “interested and on board for Shakespeare.”

The article goes on to describe VSC’s “family-friendly mission ‘to make classical theater accessible and hip.’ ”  Judging by Much Ado About Nothing, Vermont Shakespeare Company is well on its way to achieving that goal. If Shakespeare were presented this way in schools, there’s no telling how many more students would actually enjoy it, rather than finding it a mind-numbing snore. Both nights, I laughed until I had tears in my eyes and my side hurt, so all in all, I consider it an evening (well, two) well spent.

Links:

Gallery

Photos, both taken at the Friday evening Meet & Greet:

Eric and Jenny DSC07042         ESS Cropped DSC07041

Cast List:

  • Jennifer Burry: Hero, watchman A (the note taker)
  • Sheffield Chastain: Messenger (in the service of Don Pedro), Dogberry, Friar Francis
  • Eugene Douglas: Don Pedro, Verges
  • Parrish Hurley: Borachio, Antonio
  • Sophia LaPaglia: Margaret, Watchman B
  • Mark Roberts: Leonato, Watchman D, Sexton
  • Eric Sheffer Stevens: Benedick and watchman C
  • Jenny Sheffer Stevens: Beatrice
  • Collin Smith: Don John, Balthasar
  • Kyle Smith: Claudio, Conrade

Note: Pretty much all of Ursula’s lines (as best as I could tell) were given to Margaret; luckily there is not much overlap in their lines. I definitely recognize the lines in Act II Scene 1 when she flirts (?) with Signior Antonio, and in Act III Scene 1, Margaret plays Hero’s accomplice in setting up B&B.

I don’t recall the part of the boy or Innogen.

I haven’t numbered the watchmen as they’re listed in the script above, because at this point I can’t quite remember who said what. But I’m pretty sure that watchman A was tasked with jotting down Borachio’s transgressions and read them back (which would make her/him Watchman 1).  Based on number of lines, I’m guessing watchman B was Watchman 2. The lines were otherwise split amongst the watchmen. I don’t recall watchman D having any lines, and Eric’s watchman C certainly had lines, but my brain was too mesmerized to function well enough to actually process any lines (you’ll have to read my post on the ESS.com forum to see why).

Last, there was one clever bit of stage magic, which I believe was between Act V scenes 1 and 2. It is definitely when Borachio and Conrade are marched in as prisoners by the watchmen. They enter with sacks over their heads and I believe Borachio removes his sack to admit his guilt. At the end of scene 1 when all exeunt, pushing Borachio off in ignominy, Conrade remains on the stage, and (dramatic pause) removes his masks to reveal…Benedick. If you’re interested in this particular stage direction, I’d suggest you contact Vermont Shakespeare via their Facebook or website (see above), as this got a big  and very surprised “ooooohhh” from the audience during both performances I saw. Sorry I can’t remember more details – it was great, but six months later, and my aged memory just can’t do any better.

4 Responses to “Eric Sheffer Stevens in Much Ado About Nothing”

  1. Hey LL

    Do you still have the link to where the following was said?

    *The Burlington Free Press wrote: “It might be hard to imagine that The Bard could be- gulp! – fun, let alone silly fun. The Vermont Shakespeare Company demonstrates that in full force.”*

    I’m adding reviews to the site and I’m looking for a second one for “Much Ado”…I’ve been googling but no luck. If by chance you come across one it your googling would you mind sending me the link.

    Thanks so much
    Kim

    • lovelure says:

      Hi, Kim, I think I actually stole the quote from VSC’s website or Facebook page, but I just did a little Googling, and one of the actresses, Daniella Rabbiani, from the 2008 production (a year I don’t think ESS did VSC), had it posted on her website. I’ve also added it to the links at the end of this post. http://www.daniellarabbani.com

  2. kwbalan says:

    I cannot believe I didn’t see this before now LoveLure. Great recap. Thanks as always I enjoy reading your posts.

    And yes I second everything you said about it being an amazing production and overall experience.

    I have been to many broadway and off broadway productions and I can honestly say this was one of my absolute favorites. I was an incredible play put on by a group of extremely talented actors.

    Thank you to Vermont Shakespeare Company for this wonderful experience.

  3. arorua01 says:

    Nice to hear about Eric’s new work. I’m looking forward to Dr. Reid Oliver or similar character played by Eric in some Soap or film in the future, though.

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