Last weekend, eight actors and a crate of oranges in a dimly lit old room provided magnificent proof of the power of theater.
We were feeling heavy-hearted on Friday evening. Emails were arriving from friends in France as everyone was still scrambling to understand what was happening in Paris. We only knew it was horrible, the world had just gone crazier than ever, and here we were going to the theater.
But on the other hand, this was an incomparable chance to see the Shakespeare Globe players perform “Much Ado About Nothing” — in the Barrel Room at Greystone in St. Helena, no less.
Laura Rafaty, the intrepid founder of Napa Valley Shakespeare (NapaShakes), and her co-producer Matthew Cowell, had persuaded the touring troupe from London to make a stop on their way home in Napa Valley (one of two in North America). Then they had scoured the valley to find a venue for them.
Then you see the Globe actors perform in London at the re-creation of the theater where Shakespeare presented his plays. They cast a magic spell: You can imagine the playwright standing backstage or, more likely, on the stage.
On tour (troupes travel internationally), they bring with them the merry, audacious spirit of of the day. They also bring their own set, not more than a doorway with a curtain, behind which are their costumes, musical instruments and minimal props (the crate of oranges). It’s Shakespeare as it was done in his day (so we can imagine), and it’s wonderful.
After searching through possible venues, Rafaty and Cowell made an inspired choice, and credit goes to the Culinary Institute of America for working with NapaShakes to turn the Barrel Room of Greystone into a theater.
Although Robert Pickavance, a member of the Shakespeare troupe, explained that they are used to performing outdoors with natural light (as in Shakespeare’s day), they made it work in the dark, dramatic (if sometimes chilly) Barrel Room lined with giant old redwood wine casks.
The simplicity of the setup is all the more reason the players have to be brilliant. And they were.
Without stage lights, or for that matter, a stage, they presented the most memorable and most delightful production I’ve ever seen of Shakespeare’s much-loved and much-performed romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing.”
An irresistible cast sparkled, romped, sang and danced their way through a story that turns on wits — the abundance accorded the protagonists Beatrice and Benedick; and the lack thereof suffered by the second set of lovers, Hero and Claudio.
The sheer genius of it was that they made it seem so simple — until one paused to think: Wait, the same man (Alex Mugnaioni) who plays the scowling villain, Don John, slips behind the curtain and emerges as the all-time goofball, Dogsberry. The woman who plays the winsome Hero (Jessica Warbeck) transforms into a snarling soldier; the aristocratic Leonato turns into a lumbering servant; the handsome hunk Benedick (Christopher Harper) becomes a dopey peasant; the all-time uppity woman Beatrice (Emma Pallant) also plays Dogsberry’s put-upon companion of the watch, Verges; and the extraordinary Joanne Howarth portrayed, in turn, a friar, a treacherous maid, and a countryman.
Add to this the talents of Aaron Anthony as the hopelessly gullible Count Claudio and Jim Kitson as the noble Don Pedro (but they also played other roles, too), and it all added up to pure magic without a magic wand, some of the finest theater to be seen, short of hopping a plane to London. And it was here in St. Helena.
Paris was still waiting, of course, when the play was over and we went back outside to emails and Internet updates. But for a few hours we were immersed in what is good in the world, that a 400-year-old play still has the power to draw us in and make us laugh out loud.
NapaShakes is ambitious but, yikes, they pulled it off; and Rafaty has an impressive list of projects she’s working on to bring classical theater to Napa Valley. For information about upcoming events or to lend support, visit NapaShakes.org.