Think of it as a single scoop of sorbet: Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing” is both a palate cleanser for the director and a small but savory treat for Shakespeare-starved audiences.
Whedon needed a change of pace for the few weeks between shooting last summer’s monster hit “The Avengers” and the beginning of arduous post-production. Instead of taking the family to Italy, Whedon and his wife, producer Kai Cole, devoted 12 days to shooting what was literally a backyard version of Shakespeare’s endearing romantic comedy.
Whedon cut the play by about a third but kept the original language. He put all the actors in modern dress and shot in black and white with a Red digital camera in his own palatial Santa Monica house and grounds. The results are, as might be expected, good-humored and unpretentious in equal measure.
Choosing Shakespeare for his palate cleanser was a good idea for Whedon, and not just because the director had apparently organized at-home readings from the plays for years — and cast this “Much Ado” almost exclusively with actors he had worked with before in one of his TV or film productions.
Shakespeare was also a good option because it’s hard to go too far wrong with this material. The man’s plays are difficult to do superbly but because the language is so good and the situations so delicious, they’re forgiving of engaging but not quite perfect attempts, of which this is one.
Doing Shakespeare in non-Elizabethan costumes is a venerable notion by this point in time. In fact, Shakespeare in the Park impresario Joe Papp did a hugely successful version of this play for CBS-TV back in 1973, setting the action in pre-World War I America and starring Kathleen Widdoes as Beatrice and Sam Waterston as Benedick.
Visually, the transference of the play’s setting to today’s Santa Monica works beautifully, with ruler Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) and Leonato (Clark Gregg), the friend and governor of Messina he visits, coming off nicely as a pair of modern politicians complete with limousines and staff photographers to record their public faces.
Still, it takes a bit of getting used to to hear Shakespeare’s extravagant language coming out of the mouths of characters who look like they’re just back from shopping on Montana Avenue. And because the plot is so dizzying, reading a brief synopsis of the play (Marchette Chute’s “Stories From Shakespeare” is a trusty standby) before seeing the movie wouldn’t hurt.
The heart of the story involves the romantic entanglements of two of Don Pedro’s associates, close friends Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Claudio (Fran Kranz). Claudio is the more openly romantic of the two, and no sooner does he spy Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese) than he falls madly in love. So much so that he arouses the ire of Don Pedro’s villainous brother Don John (Sean Maher), who makes what mischief he can out of the situation. Which is a lot.
Benedick and Beatrice (Amy Acker), the governor’s niece, need the help of no outside party to cause grief — they do perfectly well on their own. They have been at odds since forever (Whedon adds a wordless prologue to the play to hint at a possible reason) and every meeting, her uncle says, leads to “a merry war between them.”
Shakespeare has given these two some of the play’s best lines, and it is hard not to grin when Beatrice shows so little respect for Benedick’s martial prowess she promises to eat all the men he kills, while the man in turn proclaims “till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace.”
Invariably stealing the show in “Much Ado” is the comic character of Dogberry, the well-meaning but mentally challenged local constable, here cleverly played by Nathan Fillion like a comic opera cop from CSI Messina.
The spirit and ideas behind this production are so nifty one wishes it were a “Much Ado” for the ages, but that is not to be: limiting yourself in terms of time expended on the production and actors is not a recipe for complete success. Still, it feels like a blessing to have this production at all and we are fortunate it turned out as well as it did.
• “Much Ado About Nothing” continues Thursday through Sunday at the Gold Town Nickelodeon.