When it comes right down to it, Philip Lehl and his wife Kim Tobin-Lehl are doing Much Ado About Nothing because they really wanted to play Beatrice and Benedick. "And we didn't want to do another specifically holiday play so that narrows it down," he says.
The co-founders of 4th Wall Theatre Co. (previously Stark Naked Theatre) decided they could do justice to the battling pair in one of Shakespeare's most famous comedies. Unlike some other recent productions — such as the Houston Shakespeare Festival this past summer — this will be a streamlined offering with just five actors taking on multiple roles.
Beatrice and Benedick don’t get along at all. Don Pedro and his men decide to play matchmakers by planting erroneous information designed to bring the two together. What ensues is the usual bundle of intrigue, lies, misunderstood intentions that Shakespeare often employed in his comedies. Actors Susan Draper, Herman Gambhir, Philip Hays, Lehl and Tobin-Lehl will perform in the two-act being done in the round.
Gambhir (the 2016 Houston Theater Award winner for best supporting actor for The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety), in fact, was in the summer Shakespeare festival production. Now he's playing a different character (actually characters) than he did before. "Coming from a cast of 25 or more and having anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 people to 'hey, we're going to do this in the round and a cast of five, that was really interesting to me.
"And over the summer I was playing the bad guy. This time I'm playing the good guy so this is a nice reverse."
Lehl said this production will use some of the same techniques as that of New York-based Bedlam Theatre Co. in its St. Joan production (4th Wall hosted them in Houston last season). "We've been inspired by some of the ideas that Bedlam Theatre uses. They try to eliminate the barrier between actor and audience or text and audience."
"Anytime an actor does a soliloquy, the audience is the person they're talking to," said Lehl, "but we're not going to ask the audience to participate except with their imagination."
Lehl said he thinks this play has enduring appeal because every plot line moves to the point that love can conquer all. In addition, Tobin-Lehl said, she thinks the Beatrice character appeals to modern audiences.
"I think Beatrice is one of his strong feminist characters. And it's fun and it's clear and she's also very generous, kind and loving. She's not mean,'" Tobin-Lehl said. "Her integrity is really stronger than anyone else's in the play."
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"The dress is modern but the time period is not important. We're just trying to get the text out there and getting it as close to the audience as we could," Lehl said. "People wear modern clothes but they don't have guns or cell phones. It's kind of an imaginary place." Tobin-Lehl added:"To me it should feel like you're going to come into a world that is a place that's a community enveloped in itself that could be anywhere any time and its people that are the same as you with the same problems as you, the same hopes as you, the same dreams as you and you're in that community as you sit in the seats."
In keeping with some of the Bedlam techniques, in this version of Much Ado sometimes an actor will be playing more than one character in the same scene. Sometimes there will be two actors playing one character, Lehl said, promising that somehow this will be clear to the audience.
Looking for an alternative to Christmas plays? It’s here complete with a grand wedding at the end. "It's a universal theme that love conquers all. Let's slow down and remember what's most important and that's love, that's community and that's sticking up for other people in your community," Ghambir said.
Performances are scheduled for December 2-24 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For information call 832-786-1849 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $15-$49.