I did not always like Will Shakespeare. Indeed, there was a time (10th grade, Napa High English) when I was one of the eye-rollers wondering why we were being forced to read “The Merchant of Venice,” a relic of a person with a freakish vocabulary who had been dead for thousands of years.
It took a year in London and a professor who loved Shakespeare to change my mind; also it took discovering that the Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon, writing a mere 350 or so years ago, never meant his plays to be read, particularly by high school sophomores.
The first Shakespeare play I saw was “Hamlet,” and I was hopelessly and forever hooked.
To really get why so many of us are mesmerized by the works of a man about whom we know few specifics — except that he left his wife his second best bed in his will and put a curse on anyone who disturbed his bones in the church where he is buried — you have to watch his plays, and it’s best if you can see one performed by the best who can make the centuries fall away, and bring to life all the richness and wonder of his words, the rowdy humor and deep pathos, usually all mixed into a few hours.
Today, I will happily go anywhere to see his plays: Ashland, Oregon, or Stratford, Orinda, New York or London; I would even go to Los Angeles.
The extraordinary thing is that in November, Shakespeare by the best is coming to us in Napa Valley.
I am still not quite sure just how the dauntless Laura Rafaty, founder of NapaShakes, managed it, but after persuading the touring company of the Shakespeare’s Globe in London to perform “King Lear,” she has booked them again, one of two stops in North America, to present their production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” in St. Helena on Nov. 13, 14 and 15.
A former Broadway producer and attorney, Rafaty explains that she founded NapaShakes to bring the best in classic theater to the valley. So that’s what she is doing, because when it comes to Shakespeare no one can quite do it like the Brits. I have no idea why; it is probably some gene they are born with. I have seen wonderful productions in the U.S., but somehow, when it comes to theater, and Shakespeare in particular, the Brits are matchless.
And Shakespeare’s Globe has an inspired mission to share the Bard around the world. The theater in London is a re-creation of the one where Shakespeare’s works were first performed in his day, until it was burned to the ground in two hours in 1613, after a production of “Henry VIII” in 1613 during which they shot a cannon through the thatched roof.
Built by an American, Sam Wanamaker, not far from where the original stood, it opened in 1997, a replica of the oak and thatched-roof, open-air theater where all of London, peasants to royalty, gathered to watch plays. in the uncovered center, “the groundlings” could crowd in to watch a show standing. Tiered, covered seats afforded more comfortable vantage points.
According to Rafaty, when you entered you dropped a coin in a box to join the groundlings. If you wanted to climb the stairs to a seat, you dropped another coin in a box; each time you ascended higher, you dropped another coin in a box. When the show began the boxes were taken to the office to count the coins, and this is the origin of today’s “box office.”
But whether you stand with the groundlings or sit with the nobles, the theater was an intimate space, vital, lively and provocative. Shakespeare has been presented in a zillion interpretations, but I believe it’s fair to say that if you want to see it as Elizabethans did, Shakespeare’s Globe is the place to do it. But since the goal of the new Globe is not only to re-create the old Globe, but bring Shakespeare’s works to an international audience, it also sends the touring companies, with their actors and sets, around the world.
They made their first local appearance last year when Rafaty brought “King Lear” to the Lincoln Theater. The venue proved to be a challenge; the stage dwarfed the Globe player’s set, and hearing and viewing was difficult for many. The production, nonetheless, was thrilling.
When Rafaty learned that the Shakespeare’s Globe was willing to book a return visit, she and her co-producer and production manager at NapaShakes, Matthew Cowell, were catapulted into a monthslong search for a venue to match the work.
“We had a fantastic time bringing ‘King Lear’ to Napa Valley in 2014,” said artistic director Dominic Dromgoole. “We didn’t hesitate in taking up the offer to return this year with our delightful production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ We are proud to include Napa Valley as one of our two U.S. stops on our international tour.”
They finally settled on the Barrel Room at the castle-like Greystone, built in 1889, home of the Christian Brothers winery 1945-1989, and today the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America. The Barrel Room, lined with antique 2,000-gallon wooden wine casks, evokes a moody splendor. It will seat only 250, so there will be four performances in all this time, and the CIA chefs and sommeliers are dreaming up Shakespeare-themed lunch and dinner packages.
“I couldn’t hope for a better partner (than Cowell) to help launch this, as we have such complementary skills,” Rafaty said. “(We) manage to get panicked or perturbed at the exact opposite times. He really has been so indispensable on ‘Much Ado’ with setting up our entire box office capability from scratch, and figuring out how to do world-class tech on a shoestring budget. I’ve been so impressed with how he thinks like a producer, rather than just wearing the hat of a production manager, with an ability to look at the big picture and make the right decision for the project.”
‘Much Ado About Nothing’
Possibly one of the most delightful introductions to Shakespeare is his “Much Ado About Nothing.” It sparkles with wit and romance; it has high drama thrown in, too, but, unlike many, the play does not end with bodies strewn over the stage. It is the love story of Beatrice, a woman of spirit, and Benedict, a soldier who would rather do anything than give into marriage. He is, of course, the perfect match for Beatrice who “had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.” They love each other and are the last to discover it, only as a result of their friends’ mischievous plotting
The romance unites the angelic Hero and the somewhat of a weirdo Claudio. He falls for her at first sight, chooses a peculiar way to court her (he sends a prince to do it for him), is tricked into doubting her virtue, and suffers fittingly as she, though saintly, exacts a just revenge.
Among the other memorable characters in the work are the wicked, plotting Don John, and the delightful lunatic Gooseberry, who never meets a word he cannot mangle.
One of Shakespeare’s most popular shows, it is enduringly fresh and lively, and the Globe productions renders it especially accessible. Stage Talk Magazine calls it “a genuinely hilarious show” presented by eight actors who are, in Elizabethan-style, double-, triple- and quadruple-cast to play all the roles, and who dance, sing, fight, tumble and play musical instruments.
The Public Reviews calls it a “Laugh-out-loud comedy, (with) gorgeous harmonies and talented musicians. These qualities are associated more with West End shows than Shakespearean plays. However, this production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ has all those and more, making for a surprisingly entertaining evening.”
The performances are Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 14 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and November 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $65, and a Sunday post-show cast reception catered by CIA Greystone, is $35, to benefit NapaShakes. The Greystone dinners and lunches are nearly sold out, but Rafaty said the Barrel Room will be open an hour before the show, where food and beverages will be for sale. Ticket-holders will receive a discount at the CIA store.
To purchase tickets, visit napashakes.org/tickets, for information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, and to watch a video preview visit youtu.be/iAuXurSItkM2555. The location of the performance is 2555 Main St., St. Helena.
And stay tuned, says Rafaty, she has a great many more plans in the works.